Rome Student Spotlight: Excursion to Lake Nemi

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Jill Kruidenier
May 22, 2014

IES Abroad Rome Academic Work-Study Assistant, Hilary Barker, offers us a glimpse inside a recent course-related excursion to Lake Nemi. Prepare to be wowed by the adventure she describes in this short essay:

This past weekend, I had the opportunity, along with the students of the Forma Urbis: Archaeology of Ancient Rome course to play Indiana Jones. Led by Center Director Prof. Gianni Ponti and the speleologists of Roma Sotteranea, we explored a series of ancient underground water channels once used to drain Lake Nemi.

Lake Nemi occupies a collapsed volcanic crater about 20 miles south of Rome and the land around it was the site of several Roman villas and temples. The Emperor Caligula was a particular fan of the spot, and had several huge pleasure barges for parties on the water. The lake, however, has no natural drainage so to prevent potentially damaging rises in the water level the Romans excavated a series of drainage channels, called an emissario under the adjacent hills to siphon excess water away from the lake to irrigate surrounding farmland.

We entered the emissario on the banks of Lake Nemi armed with hardhats and headlamps, ready for our 1.6 km journey under 200 meters of volcanic rock. Using only the crudest of surveying tools, the builders of the emissario began digging from both sides of the hill, planning to meet in the middle. When they did, there was an error of only 3 meters. It is always true of ancient Roman feats of engineering that to read is one thing—to see what they built using hand tools and manual calculations is quite another.

The water channels ranged in height from 4 feet to 10, and were only wide enough to walk single file, often with our shoulders brushing the walls.  We waded through several inches of water in some stretches, shimmied sideways through particularly narrow points, crawled on hands and knees, and eventually emerged into lush farmland that has been in continuous use for over 2 millennia—feeling quite grateful for the opportunity to stretch to our full heights. When asked to describe the experience, students said things like “awesome,” “a little scary,” “cramped,” “interesting,” and “unique,” but one word kept coming up again and again: “unforgettable.”

Students listen as Roma Sotteranea associate Luca Giraudo (left) shows students a map of the tunnel

IES Rome students Dave Baron (6’6”), Maria Vanella (5’1”), Rose Minutaglio,
Bryan Downs, and Anthony Pisciotta pause after a particularly narrow passageway.

IES Abroad students rest with Roma Sotteranea archaeologists at the exit of the emissario.

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Jill Kruidenier

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