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Field Notes
Colosseum Sewer
Photograph by Stephen L. Alvarez
Stephen L. Alvarez

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

After some heavy rain a couple years ago, a hole opened up on Appian Hill. Archaeologists descended into it and found a room about 40 feet (12 meters) high with a 2,000-year-old mosaic of a grape harvest. Only about half a dozen people have seen this mosaic, which is in perfect condition, and I was one of them. I got permission to rappel down and photograph it. Just being able to look at it gave me chills. Since then, they've closed the site up for conservation purposes, so it was a privilege to get in there and make a picture that millions of people can see. (See pages 88-9, July 2006 NGM.)

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

The Cloaca Maxima is a sewer that is one of Rome's oldest surviving structures. It's 2,500 years old and has been in use since the city was founded, which is a remarkable thing. But it's still a sewer and full of garbage. I spent about half a day walking around it in waders. It would have been impossible to capture an image that showed how bad it smelled down there.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

Before I went to Rome, I read a lot about crypts under churches. But even though I knew what to expect, whenever I walked into one and saw all the skulls and bones, I always thought, What were they thinking? Well, there were a couple of thoughts behind these crypts: There were some churches that were dedicated to death. The crypts were a way to remind the rich patrons that everyone dies, so they should give their money to the church. And the crypt beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione was to remind the Capuchin monks that they are not of this Earth (see pages 90-1, July 2006 NGM).ญญ When I was there, the monk who takes care of the crypt kept pointing at the skulls and saying, "Look at them. Aren't they beautiful? They've gone to their final reward. They're no longer suffering." It was a little creepy.