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Published: July 2006

Rome's Ruins

Worker Rope

In Rome's Basement

Below the city lies the world's largest undiscovered museum.

By Paul Bennett
Photograph by Stephen L. Alvarez

Luca pushes his head into the sewer, inhales, and grins. "It doesn't smell so bad in the cloaca today," he says, dropping himself feet first into a dark hole in the middle of the Forum of Nerva. Despite his optimism, the blackness emits sickening aroma: a mélange of urine, diesel, mud, and rotting rat carcasses. In short, it smells just as you'd expect a 2,500-year-old continuously used sewer to smell. Below in the dark, tuff-vaulted cavern itself, things aren't much better. As Luca wades through water the color of army fatigues, stepping over garments of temples and discarded travertine washed down over the ages, a diorama of modern life floats past: cigarette butts, plastic bags, plastic lighters, a baby pacifier, and a disturbingly large about of stringy, gray stuff that looks like toilet paper, although raw sewage isn't supposed to be flowing through here. At one turn, Luca points out a broken amphora, perhaps 2,000 years old, lying in the mud next to a broken Peroni beer bottle, perhaps a week old. Together they provide a striking testament to how long people have been throwing their garbage into the gutter of this city.

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