Some people collect art. Or classic cars. I collect final resting places. That might sound a little morbid. Are you wondering why I’d spend any of my days on earth, exploring a Roman necropolis, sharing a picnic with the dead at Athens’ oldest cemetery, or studying the female gladiators depicted in the ruins of Ephesus?
Because a cemetery is one of the places where the action is. Where the stories are, for a writer. Where unsung history can be found—and I’m a finder. After 30 years as a nonfiction author, I’m firmly addicted to researching the deep past.
The Mediterranean lands are my special focus, but I relish travel to more faraway places, too. Invariably they have burial sites, from humble niches to elaborate monuments, where ancient ritual and superstition intersect. I look at my voyages as a privileged form of time-travel, combining mental excursions with physical journeys.
Oddly enough, this graveyard enthusiasm of mine has enriched my foreign language studies. For instance, my interest in inscriptions on stelae helped me learn Greek. (Trying to locate cemeteries also motivated me to learn how to understand Greek answers to my questions!)
During Rome’s long heyday, tombs in Rome and throughout the Empire came to resemble “billboards” in stone. From them, I’ve gained insight into countless human stories. The iconography is often literal: for instance, the busy clan of the Haterii, a family of Roman builders, put exquisitely detailed bas reliefs on their tomb, showing their architectural projects, right down to the building cranes. Butchers, bakers, shipwrights, and silversmiths proudly displayed the tools of their trades on their graves. So did doctors. Charioteers and gladiators posted won-lost records on theirs. Even humbler folks, including slaves and freedwomen, created elaborate tomb visuals.
Tomb of Haterii. Bust of man. Cast in Pushkin museum from original in Musei Vaticani, 79-80 AC. Found in 1848 near Porta Maggiore, Roma. Photo by shakko published under the Creative Commons license.