Monday, February 18, 2019
The incomplete text below was found in the pocket of a murdered Italian banker in the early 1980s. Another section of it was discovered later in the 1990s in the safe of a deceased senior member of Italy's military intelligence:
...but what did the primary witness, this surveyor named Rampali, say he saw? This comes down to us from his recently rediscovered journal entries in a forgotten cabinet in a local municipality and from local folklore in that part of the Campania, the lore itself almost lost in the face of an encroaching technological-industrial modernity and its attendant cultural homogenization due to consumerism, most Italians now communicating in Tuscan, and so on...
After several days of uneventful entries, Eduardo Rampali, who was a learn ed man from Pisa and a prominent vassal of the Spanish Bourbons wrote on a summer day in 1713:
Work hath progressed slowly [with] the first well sunk.
Workmen frightened, seeme to be slowing dig [with] purpos[e] lazy sods.
[cont.] I decide to go down into the hole thus sunk...
My lords, I can not put upon paper what I have witnesseth with mine own eyes as God is my guarantor [and] I must convey onle that we appear [to have]come [upon] what is statuary but a most curious one at that for [it] appears to have station of its own [and] puts thought into motion.
[cont.] It grabbed my hand [and] it spake my lords [and] its agency ceased. I can discloose [sic] no more [and] will apprise you of the details with your audience.
And at that, Mr. Rampali vanishes and the trail disappears like so many others from the historical record, perhaps to be unearthed another day as Truth is most patient. This, we fear, might one day happen in this case. But at present the narrative has no other supporting documentary record. The document has been found to be genuine, but there is no opinion on the veracity or even meaning of its claims from the specialists consulted to interpret it thanks to a lack of greater context. Current corporate thinking makes a definitive explanation impossible for the time being, and this is viewed in our circles as a positive sign.
During the rule of Charles III of Spain, King of Naples and of Sicily, over what is now most of the southern half of Italy, a decree had come from the very House of Bourbon by way of the gendarmes, heralds, and criers, for a series of wells to be dug around the southeastern base of Mount Vesuvius. On its face, there is nothing special to note here and there are many such projects that have come about over the generations.
Among other purposes, this dig was to feed water to one of the many estates in the Campania for agricultural purposes and to maintain their decorative gardens and hydraulic fountains; it was also to be connected by way of a network of discreet, cyclopean maintenance tunnels through which the aristocrats and their guests could make a quick exit in case of the periodic and inevitable peasant uprisings and other foreign invasions. For an undetermined period only the authorities and the underworld knew of them. Certainly today, the Italian public has knowledge of them but are also currently unaware of parallel structures. Current knowledge of this specific network dates back primarily to their use as air raid shelters during World War II, and tours are often conducted in parts of them; other sections are home to the addicted population, general derelicts, youth gangs, and organized crime. (All heavily surveilled by numerous agencies of government.) They sometimes serve as ceremonial chambers for the Camorra when they induct members; usually this is children from the housing projects of Naples and greater Campania, generally. More often, many of the tunnels and corridors are used as garbage dumps by the very same populations. Occasionally, one can find the burned image of a saint lying among the rest of the decaying drug paraphernalia and human detritus, dirty, contaminated needles everywhere...
But this is all academic by now: Farmers around Vesuvius had been turning up relics tilling their fields for centuries and, while it still occurs, these were, as they are today, one-offs, not hordes of coins nor priceless statuary or decorative pieces that could be exchanged in the underworld of that era, or this one. The discovery of Herculaneum through a series of tunnels that began their lives as farm wells had already occurred in the region and was filling the king's private museum in Naples with a growing hoard of lost masterpieces. The digging itself was not a criminal act, but the secreting away of antiquities was, even under the very loose statutes and customs of the day, it was grave robbery. This digging and pilfering would continue until the revolutions and shortly after Johann Joachim Wincklemann's (ironically, an antiquarian from the Prussian city of Stendahl) essay on the treasures and Weber's work outlining the layout of the legendary villa of the papyri. The overarching story is universally known and is considered infamous in the history of archeology.
As yet another test dig close by progressed, a rather familiar pall of secrecy began to blanket the undertaking. It seems that the young king smelled more treasure to loot. Gangs of prisoners were brought into the area close to the coastline and strictly overseen by the King's men, literally mining the volcanic earth for treasure as it was little more than a form of looting. While many passages have collapsed and are no longer accessible to the public, the Bourbon tunnels still worm their way through the buried sections of Herculaneum and can be considered a very old crime scene, a crime as it were, against humanity. There would be many more in the new modern era.
Though there are similarities to the separate finds the wells dug close to the base of Vesuvius must be considered a completely separate venture from the tunneling into Herculaneum and decades later at the site of Pompeii.
There were some peculiar problems encountered with the sinking of the first well: the site chosen by the court engineers had encountered a hard volcanic crust and then subsequently uncovered what seemed to have been a village dump at one time; the workmen were finding numerous bits of cloth, old olive oil lamps, bits of parchment, curious “can-like cylinders” that may have been metal scrolls, mule bones, bottles, broken farm implements, but nothing of any ascertainable value. You first had to dig through the thick layers of rich, volcanic soil to be carried away plat-by-plat in the punishing Mediterranean sun, leaving the diggers open to all four elements. These were the labors of slaves who worked with primitive spades, staves, and wooden barrows. And this was also a military venture. By the third day of digging, the first well sunk was only fifteen cubits deep, incredibly slow going, even in those days; load after load of loose limestone, dirt, sand, gravel and tufa came up with each hoisted basket. The hole only got deeper and wider with intensive sifting and careful horizontal exploration. A few more days passed. In that meantime the overseer, a local surveyor, a rare vocation in the region at the time, had decided to split his workers in order to sink several more wells. The hole seemed to feed on their labor, and the more they dug, the less it seemed to relent, as though time was standing still and the dirt dug magically re-appeared from whence it came. Things keep their secrets, he recalled, and so, the engineer decided to reconnoiter the first well to see for himself what was slowing the work.
Rampali's log tells us that the encrusted rural workers and prisoners cleared out of the hole and that down went the engineer “sans his tricorner” with a boxy oil lamp. Descent into the hole was like running a gauntlet of outstretched skeletal-arms, thick, hard weeds nearly choking any view of the bottom, scratching any exposed flesh. The diggers had somehow made it down to twenty-four cubits by now, well under half the normal rate of speed. There was an ineffable smell he could not pinpoint, well beyond his experience, not even in war, dense in its character. It was an acrid odor, and then he heard a sound, beneath him, as though something were moving. The odor transmuted, relocating from his nose to his mouth, becoming a very sour, metallic taste, the kind you feel before an act of violence, although this was apparently not the experience of synthesia. Everything is violence in our temporal existence. The walls of the hole seemed to be undulating gradually, and a creaking sound began to emanate from the ground beneath him like the broken gears he had heard on a crude farm machine that was cranked by hand, metal on metal, like some broken clock or the spokes of a cart becoming entangled, and, rather than giving away and eventually dying down, it was becoming an immutable and irresistible force, crushing whatever got was in its proximity. Below him, he could hear rocks cracking into pieces.
He could now feel the ground beneath his feet shaking, and a rumbling sound came from what sounded like everywhere. A tiny mound began to form at the center of the pit's floor that was going to be breached at any moment and he steadied himself, reaching for his saber and hoping that his powder was dry and his flintlock was still on his belt. What broke through the earthen mound would be folklore in the nearby villages and towns for generations—still told to this day—but the surveyor would never say what it was that he first witnessed being reborn from the earth, because no one was certain that it had ever been alive. They weren't certain that it was dead, or alive, or what that might even mean. These were peasants, and implications for Western technological development escaped them completely. It would have escaped almost anybody at that historical moment, however.
The Bourbons forbade any talk of of the “artifact,” and what happened to the object found in the pit has never been fully ascertained by contemporary scholars and our best technicians who have been brought into the circle. However, through the forensic piecing together of local folk narratives around Vesuvius and greater Campania, thanks primarily to the noted historiographer, Giuseppe Calabrese, we have a general idea that a statue and various other Roman era objects relating to it were unearthed and taken away from the site by the royal authorities at the time. What does not square with this reconstructed story is within the narrative folklore itself which we can dismiss as being embellished and overly imaginative superstition that could not be possible based on our current understanding of the Hellenic world and what it was capable of in the area of machine technology. At the same time, something remarkable was uncovered.
Only 1% of all Roman bureaucratic and literary output is known to have survived into the contemporary world, while most technological artifacts of that time would have been constructed of perishable materials, there were no synthetics, no modern chemistry, to our knowledge, so little is left. Conversely, there was a continuous artisanal tradition within the city of Rome and the rest of the empire, some of it originating from the Greek provinces and in Alexandria, a base which was more than capable of creating at least working models—unique, and incapable of being mass produced—on demand to what can safely presumed to be aristocratic patrons. The island of Rhodes was well known for its special machines.
We know on the one hand that the Roman military was equipped with construction machinery that was on par with 19th century devices such as a primitive construction site conveyor belt uncovered in Greece in order to convey away soil, sand, gravel, rock, uprooted foliage, and the rest of standard, geological detritus. It's also common knowledge that steam-propelled toys existed as one-offs for children of the aristocracy and were barred from further development and production by the emperor. What other one-offs originated in the workshops of Rome? Who forged them? Was it the god Hephaestus or was it some mortal inventor like Daedalus? What historical processes brought these inventions about, these curious creations that we can only guess at for want of any concrete remains? Like so much else, this was borrowed Greek & Egyptian technology that might have been adapted and improved upon by the Romans in their inimitable style. As is so often the case, we are left with more questions than answers and physical artifacts are scanty.
Outside of the occasional shipwreck discovery, what happened to so many of the statues of classical Greece? Was there an Etruscan literature? Surely there was. Who were the makers of these devices and who were the men who thought them up in the first place? Only the dead know, and only forensics experts—archaeologists and scholars, some of the new priests and diviners—are listening anymore, and they might begin listening once more to the stones, to the walls of the ruins, to the few corpses which remain, for they whisper some of their secrets to us, ever so lightly. The world and the Four Elements are immutable and eternal. There is a moisture in the earth.
… [page missing]
One more scrap of Rampali's very brief existence on this earth was discovered in yet another forgotten file cabinet in the office of the Carabinieri in Naples in 1977: it was part of a kind of an inventory manifest of the Villa Fraticidio that came with the fall of Bourbon rule in the Campania listing two partial statuary found at the well site in 1713 with the surveyor's surname and initials appended to it, all listed alone, and without any context provided, a common state of affairs in such matters. A description states one of the statues “has seams.” No living scholar has been able to decipher what this meant exactly, but one German has put forward the most logical possibility: they were busts, and not of Roman origin at all, a most satisfying conclusion if unprovable, while the French schools seem to think they might just as easily have been bronzes with casting remnants around the edges, perhaps. From our current level of knowledge, there was little uniformity in ancient workshops. Traces of seams in the statuary could indicate that these were later works, possibly from arsenal works in Corinth. They are almost certainly composed of bronze but further analysis will be necessary as recent X-raying and scanning of the parts and trunks have revealed they are composites of lost-wax and beaten metal processes. In addition, most of the parts have an outer-coating of ceramic. As always, folkloric narratives are to be ruled out as in error and do not adhere to any standards of evidence and more often contradict the known archaeological record around Vesuvius, if not the very laws of physics themselves.
Irrational stories of this kind are normal to peasant societies, but stories of the fantastic can be found in virtually all human groupings, notably in places known to have been the sites of natural disasters, former battlefields of war, cemeteries and the archaic necropolis, not to mention the tales that almost always surround the ruins of past civilizations. They are to be dismissed as out of hand and comprise a kind of dreamlike desire to transcend what is a very monotonous life under a mostly banal feudal order. Such are the dreams of the faceless man, the common man who will always elude the archaeologist, scholar, living as it were in the shadows that border time and space, happily anonymous until the next spade comes along to disturb their rest, again. ...
All contents © Matt Janovic 2019