Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews    entry Sept 2013

The Ancient Naples Collection in the National Museum


The “first Naples,” the city of Parthenope (named for the siren in Greek mythology) was located on the Pizzofalcone hill (alias Mt. Echia and Monte di Dio), overlooking the sea and the small island of Megaris, upon which the Egg Castle would later be built. Actually, Parthenope still is down there somewhere, although you can't really find it anymore; the hill today is totally overbuilt and overgrown with 2500 years of everything--roughly 100 human generations of stuff. (That would be your great-great-great...uh, you can do the rest.) It is not evident—but it makes sense—that these ancient Parthenopeans should have had cemeteries somewhere. Important: Ancient grave sites contained a multitude of artifacts such as jewelry, pottery, and other items that shed light on the ways of life of ancient peoples. Such sites on the Pizzofalcone hill began to be excavated in about 1950, and thus the National Archaeological Museum in Naples contains a collection entitled Ancient Naples. It holds, arranged in chronological order, some of the most important finds from the cemetery of Parthenope, as well as from some other ancient grave sites.

Evidence from these sites as well as from some ancient literary sources suggest that the first settlement was founded by colonists from either Rhodes or nearby Cuma; Parthenope seems to have been occupied from the mid-seventh century to the mid-sixth century BC, more than a century before the adjacent “new city” of Naples was founded, probably by Athens and Syracuse with the support of Pithecusae (the Greek settlement on Ischia). (Yes, you--or most likely someone else--really can tell all that from studying ancient pottery!) Evidence from cemeteries and from coins has supported the idea that the second city, Naples, itself, was founded in the years immediately following the naval battle of Cuma (474 BC) in which Cuma and its allies, together with Syracuse, defeated the Etruscans. Recent excavations, however have brought to light a stretch of fortification wall in vico Soprammuro a Forcella (off of via Duomo, not far from the current coast line) datable to around 500 BC. This pushes the traditionally held date for the foundation of the city of Naples back a bit earlier, to at least the late sixth century BC (that is, between 550 and 500 BC). In any event, Parthenope and Naples eventually grew together to form a single urban unit.



The collection in the museum opened in 1999 and is based, in part, on discoveries at the cemeteries mentioned above. The evidence from such sites is understandably fragmentary, and it has not been possible to reconstruct exactly how it all fits together; yet the fragments are interesting and are of both Greek and native Italic/Campanian origin. The room also contains pottery fragments found in the street, Via Chiatamone, directly below Pizzofalcone, items that very probably simply slid down the hill.

The collection also has fine intact examples of Attic (Athenian) pottery found in the cemetery of Castel Capuano, the old law courts of the Aragonese city, as well as from other early sites in Naples. The pottery on display in the Ancient Naples rooms include an Attic red figure lekythos (oil flask) with Eros and a girl dating to the end of the fifth century BC. There is also a particularly beautiful Attic red figure amphora (image, left)  showing the birth of Helen from the egg with her brothers the Dioscuri - Castor and Pollux, dated to the late fifth century BC. The item comes from a burial in which it functioned as a container for the ashes of the dead. The main side depicts the birth of Helen. Apart from the shape of the vase and the stylistic characteristics of the decoration, the dating is also based on the chronology of Euripides’ Orestes which deals with the subject and was performed at Athens in 409 B.C.

The same room also contains ceramic female busts and heads probably connected to the cult of Demeter from Sant’ Aniello a Caponapoli (an area and church near the high NW corner of the ancient city, where the acropolis stood--almost across the street from the modern National Museum) datable to between the late fifth century BC and the late fourth century BC. The Greek phase of the cemeteries is extremely interesting, in particular the monumental tombs, dating to between the fourth and third centuries BC, excavated from the tuff of the hill that rises up towards Capodimonte. As well, the collection shows that certain non-Greek customs spread to Naples, such as that of placing the crater -- the vase used to mix wine for the funeral ceremony -- by the feet of the deceased. This custom was alien to the Greek world and can be traced to Etrusco-Campanian peoples, highlighting the mixed cultural models caused by the presence in the city of different ethnic groups, those of both Greek and native Campanian origin.


Also see these related entries: 

Recovering the High Ground        the Isolympic Games            Next Stop, Neapolis!          Magna Grecia

Old City-New City        Greek Naples         Parthenope/Ulysses       Hercules, Thou shouldst be living at this hour!



Copyright © 2002 to 2017