Naples Necropolis Reveals Room-Like Tombs and Rare Greek Art

The Ipogeo dei Cristallini or the “Hypogeum of Cristallini Street” is part of an ancient necropolis in Naples dated 2,300 years ago. It is uniquely Greek, or Hellenistic and will open to the public in mid-2022. Naples, Italy is renowned for lying on the ruins of ancient Roman Herculaneum and Pompeii, which were wiped out by Mount Vesuvius. However, the slated opening of the Naples necropolis to the general public in June of this year will be celebrating the ancient city’s Greek origins, reports The Greek City Times .

Greek names on the tomb walls within the Naples necropolis scribbled in ancient Greek offer clues to the deceased’s identities. The site will open to the public for the first time ever in mid-2022. ( Ipogeo dei Cristallini )

The Greek Naples Necropolis: Rock Tombs and Hellenistic Art

The Greeks built an exotic Hellenistic culture at Neapolis (Naples) and the soon-to-be-opened hypogeum necropolis “museum” site will be showcasing this era of Naples’ history. A hypogeum is any ancient building, or a part of a structure built underground, generally in the form of an underground temple or tomb.

The Greek Naples necropolis, 400 years older than the ruins of Roman Pompeii, was constructed by the Greeks in the 8th century BC. According to The Smithsonian , this site was a hilly area composed of mostly volcanic tuff rock, which is relatively soft and easy to work .

The Naples necropolis area, called the Sanità, has a steep staircase burrowing underground that leads to four different tomb areas , with each having its own distinct (and rather grand) entrance, which at one time may have opened onto the original pathway used by mourners. The grandiosity of these ornate entranceways clearly indicates that these tombs were for Greek elites .

While bustling streets of Naples today show no signs of volcanic tuff rock volcanic origins, there were once deep rock-carved funerary paths leading up to the ancient Greek necropolis in Naples. Over time parts of these funerary paths became the roads of the Sanità settlement. Over time, the Naples necropolis disappeared under deep layers of volcanic ash, and we were lucky to have found the Ipogeo dei Cristallini section at all.

The Hellenistic Naples necropolis was only discovered under deep layers of volcanic ash in the 1960s when the city’s sewage system was upgraded. The thick layers of ash are the reason these tombs and their Greek wall paintings are so well preserved.

Luigi La Rocca, head of the cultural and historical body responsible for Naples’ heritage, estimates the site contains dozens of tombs, with multiple bodies in each tomb. Were these people a family or a social group or were there political relationships between the dead in a given tomb? The current stage of excavation and exploration is too early to answer these questions. However, La Rocca is quick to call this find as the “most important” ever found in Naples over its entire history.

Detail of a Hellenistic painting in the Greek Naples necropolis. ( Ipogeo dei Cristallini )

Chambered Tombs and The Preservation of Greek Art

The tombs in the Greek Naples necropolis are stunning and revealing. The Greeks favored twin- chambered tombs , with an upper chamber for praying family members, and a lower chamber where the body rested. The lower chambers in these tombs were dug directly into the soft volcanic rock tuff, creating a cave-like structure. These caves are better described as chambers built to resemble rooms complete with benches, staircases, and faux ceiling beams! Even the sarcophagi had fluffy mock pillows all carved from the same rock, reports CNN.

“Greek painting is almost completely lost — even in Greece there’s almost nothing left of painting, though we know from sources that it was important. There’s basically nothing left of anything painted on wood or furniture, and there’s very little wall painting — mainly Macedonian tombs that conserve important pictorial murals, but it’s almost nothing. We have lots of Roman painting, but much less Greek. So, this is a rarity, and very precious,” stated Federica Giacomini in a CNN interview. Giacomini has spent the last year overseeing the monitoring of the site for Italy’s Central Institute for Conservation (or the ICR).

The tomb walls are lavishly frescoed with lush garlands, gorgeous candelabras, vases and dishes used in funerary rituals, and two human figures (probably Dionysus and Ariadne). In addition, a sculpted classical Greek gorgon face looks almost new at the entrance to one of the tombs. The most famous gorgon was the Medusa, the beautiful yet monstrous gorgon with living snakes for hair.

A gorgon, which first appear in ancient Greek literature, carved in volcanic rock tuff and painted in tomb C of the Ipogeo dei Cristallini in Naples, Italy. (Alessandra Calise Martuscelli / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Greek Naples Necropolis Find Moving Forward

So far only one tomb has been fully examined. The other tombs found so far at the Greek Naples necropolis are not so perfect. However, one damaged tomb still had perfectly preserved frescoes. The names written on the tomb’s walls are both Greek and Roman indicating that the Romans also used this site centuries later.

Moving forward, DNA analysis and further excavation of the 20 tombs identified so far will be necessary to construct a full picture of the tombs, and the original burial practices. Once any potential on-site hazards are taken care of, the area will open to the public for the first time in its history, in mid-2022.

“It’s a space of extraordinary importance because it furnishes us with precious data about the beliefs and the social structure of Neapolis in the Hellenistic and Roman eras,” La Rocca said to CNN.

He hopes that Naples can experience a cultural boom that is distinct from its tourism boom, that will open up avenues for more research and excavations in the Neapolitan area.

Top image: A small stretch of the ancient Naples necropolis known as the Ipogeo dei Cristallini or the Hypogeum of Cristallini Street is set to open to the public in mid-2022, shedding new light on the Italian city’s Greek history and Greek cultural origins. Source: Ipogeo dei Cristallini


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