What is this all about?
This website concerns a complex set of buildings set against a volcanic cliff, behind which are tunnels and chambers carved out of solid volcanic tufa rock. The site is at Baia, in the north of the bay of Naples, Italy.
These features were later adapted and incorporated into a set of Roman baths, which has disguised their antiquity and what lies in the hill behind them. Archaeologists do agree, however, that these are among the oldest buildings at the site.
Many of the features indicate that this is a ritual site of some kind, rather than a utilitarian construction supplying volcanic heat and hot water to a bath complex. These include hundreds of lamp niches, S bends at strategic places to obscure the view ahead, a curious hinged door selecting one of two tunnels, a vaulted and pillared inner sanctuary and an underground river (The Styx?), running directly below the sanctuary.
In association with the structures within the hillside, there exists against the cliff face a staircase to an upper level and five ruined buildings, which mainly appear as a series of sillhouettes against the cliff face together with some ruined stone footings. It is quite impossible to reconstruct what they might have looked like.
In front of the buildings is an open area and in front of one building there is a court of some kind, containing two D shaped baths.
The descent into hell
This short video extract is from a 2001 documentary made by Robert Temple to coincide with the publishing of his book Netherworld, in which he describes the 20 years he spent trying to gain official access to the tunnels. The film was made by Mentorn Films.
In spite of repeated requests by Temple, no further official access has been granted to the tunnels which are strictly off-limits. There are no plans to investigate this archaeological gem.
The clip is used here with the kind permission of cameraman Colin Rogal.
Unearthing the Oracle of the Dead – 1962
A British naval Commander and chemical engineer called Robert Paget, married to an Italian opera singer wife, retired in 1958 to Baia, hoping to enjoy a peaceful time in the sunshine. He idly looked at the mass of Roman remains around the area and started to get very interested in the local archaeology. This area had been known since antiquity as ‘The Flaming Fields’, ‘The Phlegrean Fields’ or ‘Campi Flegrei’ as they are called today. The whole region is an accumulation of up to 80 volcanic craters, some, such as Solfatara are still active.
In Greek mythology this was the region where Homer’s Oddysey sites the underworld. Much later in Roman times Virgil’s Aeneid has Aeneas the Trojan taken by the Sybil of nearby Cumae to visit the underworld.
Paget found a kindred spirit in a younger man, an American naval officer called Keith Jones, who had been assigned to NATO’s Naples headquarters.
Together Paget and Jones discussed the local archaeology and read as much as they could of the ancient writings which mention the area, one steeped in mystery and one of the earliest settlements of the Greeks in Italy, long before Italy had become a united country under the Romans. Long before the great Pantheon of the Greek gods existed A time when there existed only Hera, the mother goddess.
In reading references to the underworld, Paget and Jones were astonished to find that many wrote of the underworld in this region as being an actual place, rather than something dreamed up in mythological stories by Homer, Virgil and others.
Paget and Jones decided to actively look for a possible site of the Oracle of the Dead and the Underworld. Having read every detail they could in the history books, they embarked on a systematic search of all the tunnels within a wide area, none of which fitted the bill for a descent to the underworld. Tradition states that this was on the edge of Lake Avernus, which is in the region, but some way away from Baia.
For two years Paget and Jones searched for the underworld they felt should exist.
One day Paget and Jones were sitting on some fallen pillars in a far corner of the Roman baths at Baia, looking at the row of buildings known today as ‘Il Piccole Terme’, the small baths. A chance remark to them from a custodian at the site mentioned that the building on the end was thought to be a Samnite temple, ie dating from 420-330 BC.
A temple? Here in the middle of the Roman baths? How unlikely. Immediately Paget and Jones started to look at it in a new light. After investigating further and enlisting experts, they were able to ascertain that the temple is more likely to be Greek.
But what is a Greek temple doing disguised within a later set of Roman baths? It is an interesting question.
Exploration led to a series of discoveries which are complex and perplexing.
Paget was to spend much of the rest of his life not enjoying the sunshine, but digging in the dark, exploring and measuring many hundred metres of tunnel hidden deep inside the hillside.
The site has never been officially explored by archaeologists. Much of it was deliberately filled with earth in Roman times. This in itself was a monumental effort.
This website is my personal attempt to pull together all the information that is currently known about this place, in the hope that one day a proper investigation will be made. I hope you will read and enjoy the story.