SAN SIMPLICIO NECROPOLIS TEMPLE
Welcome to the archaeological area of San Simplicio. This audio guide was produced by Aspo spa; Audio Cultura supplied the audio narration, while the texts and scientific consultancy were provided by Letizia Fraschini.
To being your visit, go to the end of the corridor and return along the same route, listening as you go to the audio contributions provided. Each point of interest is marked with a label displaying the headphones symbol and a corresponding number.
To help you further, information panels are displayed along the route for consultation.
We are beneath the San Simplicio church square, where part of the archaeological dig can be seen that was conducted during the upgrading works of the area in front of the church.
The dig covered the entire area that you are about to visit as well as part of the adjacent car park, where 450 tombs were found along with a stratification of phases of suburban worship and burial grounds that span the first 2000 years of history of the city of Olbia, from its creation under the Phoenicians until the Middle Ages.
The ridge on which the church of San Simplicio now stands remained outside the centre of settlement throughout antiquity.
Archaeological surveys very clearly indicate that, beneath the current church, lies a stratification of previous places of worship: the earliest are probably Phoenician, then Greek, Punic, Roman and Paleochristian. In the Roman era, the necropolis that, in the Punic period, had been located to the south-west of where we find it today, was expanded to occupy the space around the place of worship.
It is likely that a place of worship dedicated to a female divinity, perhaps the goddess Astarte, was present from when the settlement was founded by the Phoenicians around 775-750 B.C., given the discovery of fragments of Phoenician amphorae during this excavation.
The temple certainly existed during Olbia’s Greek period, when Greeks from the city of Phocaea on the coast of modern-day Turkey replaced the Phoenicians in the urban settlement around 630 B.C.
Two wells for water, on the bottom of which, at the time they were abandoned around 600 B.C., various offerings were deposited during sacred rites, date from the shrine’s Greek period and were dedicated to the goddess Demeter or the goddess Hera.
You can see the first well in front of you along with the materials recovered from it: a wine amphora from the Greek city of Clazomenae (on the coast of modern-day Turkey), a wine jar with a lobed mouth, a jar for water with bands of black glaze, a small jar made of local clay and an Etruscan wine amphora. You will encounter the second Greek well further along the tour.
The shrine then stood on the first natural ridge outside the settlement. The custom of symbolically appropriating the surrounding territory by establishing shrines in significant sites, such as heights, fords and promontories, is typical of the colonial urban centres founded by the Phoenicians and the Greeks in the western Mediterranean. It is therefore probable that Olbia, first Phoenician and then Greek, was regarded as a city from its earliest beginnings.
With the Carthaginian conquest of Sardinia around 510 B.C., Olbia fell into the hands of Carthage.
No clear evidence of the Punic period emerged during the dig, but the persistence of the shrine in the subsequent Roman era means that it is certainly plausible that it continued to be used during occupation by Carthage.
With the Roman conquest of Sardinia around 238 B.C., Olbia enjoyed a golden age. These were the days of the Roman Republic and, from 200 B.C., there was a remarkable economic and demographic boom and so the city’s necropolis expanded, spreading down the slopes of the hill on which the shrine stood. In this phase, Ceres was the divinity to which worship was dedicated, known to the Greeks as Demeter, the divinity of life and, in this context, life after death.
The pit graves you see before you began to appear, and, with the passage of time, they proliferated.
As you can see, the tombs were usually accompanied by grave goods, made up of a pair of flagons and jugs along with many fragments of terracotta statuettes of the Roman goddess Ceres.
From that time, and throughout the entire Roman era, the tombs gradually increased in number in the approaches to the temple. The bones of the corpses are not, of course, displayed in the pit graves since they were taken away during the dig and are being studied.
Before you, you can again see pit graves dating from the age of the Roman Republic.
In the imperial era, the burial of the deceased near the shrine continued. These were mostly pit graves, cappuccina tombs and cremation vessels, which were all removed during the excavation and can no longer therefore be seen.
The throngs of tombs, very close together and even overlapping, bear witness to the great devotion to the goddess Ceres: everyone wanted to be buried close to her temple. The burials are so numerous that the height of the necropolis rose up to the level of the chest tombs of the imperial era, one of which can be seen before you: the wall that marked out the tomb is visible on top of a mass of earth that was not excavated in order to prevent its destruction, under which a number of pit graves may be concealed.
In the foreground, a cappuccina tomb has been reconstructed for educational purposes, although it was actually found at a higher level: the corpse, with its grave goods, was protected with tiles placed on the roof. In this case, two tiles bear the stamp of the workshop that produced them, owned by Acte, a freed slave and Nero’s concubine, the owner of a brick factory in Olbia and a large estate given to her by the emperor.
The display cases preserve a selection of materials from the excavation, restored thanks to a grant from the municipal administration of Olbia.
In the first, there are a number of ceramic containers of grave goods from tombs dating back to the age of imperial Rome. At the centre is a cooking pot and drinking vessels; at the top right, there are miniature reproductions of drinking vessels and containers of perfumed ointments; at the bottom right are more containers of perfumed ointments; at the bottom left are two oil lamps and, at the top left, another container of perfumed ointments.
In the foreground to the right, two small amphorae can be seen, positioned vertically. These are cremation tombs: after the corpses were burned, the few remaining bones were buried inside vessels of various shapes. As with the cappuccina tomb seen earlier, these were also found at a greater height than their current positions and were placed here for educational purposes.
On your left, close to the back wall of the site, the second well from Olbia’s Greek period can be seen, illuminated by an interior white light. As in the first case, vessels were found at the bottom that had been put there during a sacred ritual and that are now displayed alongside the well: two large oil and wine amphorae from Corinth, one of which has been completely reconstructed, a wine amphora from the island of Chìos (near the coast of modern-day Turkey) with the typical bands of red glaze, and a jug for pouring wine.
To the left of the well are pit graves from the era of the Roman Republic and, at a higher level, part of a cappuccina tomb from the imperial age, later divided by a wall.
This display case contains a number of objects that were part of grave goods dating from the age of imperial Rome: a sheet of lead with engraved depictions of the human figure, nails from the soles of two shoes and, from children’s graves, dolls with moveable limbs and two whistles, in the forms of a hen and a dove. The statuettes come from the pit graves dating back to the Roman Republic seen earlier.
We know that the temple of Ceres was rebuilt around 60-70 A.D. by Acte, the concubine to whom Nero donated vast properties in the territory of Olbia and who was very devoted to the goddess. Evidence of the building works is given by the inscription on the temple’s architrave, found in the Middle Ages, very probably during the construction of the church of San Simplicio. The inscription was immediately transported to Pisa, where it is still preserved.
A few years later, during the reign of the emperors of the Flavian dynasty, that is, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, the entrance to the shrine was monumentalised through the creation of two long parallel walls flanking the temple’s access ramp, which can still be seen. While the back wall of the archaeological area no longer exists, we can see in the space framed by the two parallel walls, at a greater height, the entrance to San Simplicio church, perfectly in line with the Roman walls. This precise alignment between the Roman walls and the church is further proof of the fact that it stands on previous sites of worship.
The floor level of the access ramp, of which some traces still remain, was built during the Flavian dynasty and covers two more ancient monumental tombs, perhaps Punic, sadly plundered in antiquity, that were built of large stone slabs, lying to the right of the long left wall.
With the gradual spread of Christianity, after 313 A.D. worship of the martyr Simplicio replaced that of the goddess Ceres at the shrine.
The centuries of the High Middle Ages, from around 450 to 1,000 A.D., were a period of great crisis for Olbia and so the tombs dating from this time were few and very humble: these were pit tombs, sometimes marked out with a few stones and bereft of grave goods.
It was not until what is known in Sardinia as the Giudical period that there was a cultural and economic revival in the city, when the island was divided into four realms, or Giudicati, and Olbia was the capital of one of them: the Giudicato of Gallura.
In this period, around 1100 A.D., the Romanesque church of San Simplicio was built and still stands on the square above the archaeological site.
For the construction of the church, a lime kiln was built, which is the circular walled structure in front of you, lying between the two Roman walls of the entrance to the shrine and illuminated with an interior white light. It was required for the construction of the church and for the subsequent building needs of the ecclesiastical authority.
The kiln was built on this site because, at the base of the access ramp to the shrine, it lay at a lower level. Beyond this point, the ground level was higher due to the continuous addition of tombs throughout the previous centuries.
Evidence of the Giudical period comes from two tombs.
One, made of granite slabs, lies between the kiln and the base of the back wall of the archaeological area, between the two long Roman walls of the shrine’s entrance, illuminated with an interior white light.
The other was made of a small brick wall above the long Roman wall to the left; since it almost touches the roof of the archaeological area, only part of the brick wall can be observed, at the point where the Roman wall meets the back wall of the site.
In this display case, there are some glass containers from tombs dating from the age of imperial Rome. At the centre is a phial for containing perfumed ointments and fragments of a pitcher; at the top right are fragments of cone-shaped containers of perfumed ointments; at the lower right are fragments of a pitcher and small drinking vessels; at the top left is a glass and a phial.
This display case exhibits jewels and personal ornaments from the grave goods of tombs from the age of imperial Rome, two lead containers for small objects or beauty ointments and, at the centre, two bronze mirrors.
A uniquely rich collection of grave goods of rings and jewels is of particular importance and comes from a tomb traditionally known as that of the “Lord of the Rings”, among which a ring with a carnelian gem stands out, on which a human figure is engraved, mounted in silver, along with a silver disk with the equestrian figure of the emperor Constantine.
Here, two chest tombs with their grave goods can be seen, along with two cappuccina tombs dating from the age of imperial Rome. The latter were not excavated in order to show visitors how they appeared at the time of their discovery. The mass of unexcavated earth in which the four tombs lie is certain to conceal various other pit graves.
The tiles placed on the left wall of the archaeological area are the best preserved among those that covered the cappuccina tombs discovered.
As you will have noticed, the site is not easy to read because artefacts, tombs and wall structures can be seen all at the same time, covering a span of time of around 1700 years. Nevertheless, the Superintendency of Archaeology, Fine Arts and the Municipality of Olbia, with funds from the European Community and the Sardinia Region, decided to open up this archaeological site to the public both because of its spectacular nature and because it bears witness to the entire history of the ancient city, so inhabitants and visitors can gain a real grasp of the fact that, a few centimetres below the current ground level, an entire ancient city lies that even the most minor excavation works could put at risk.
Your visit to the site may have come to an end but we have some further information for you.
If you have not already done so, we suggest that you visit the church of San Simplicio in the square above this archaeological site. You will then be able to appreciate two features that are clear evidence of the existence of even more ancient places of worship hidden in the subsoil. The three naves are separated by two rows of columns, alternating between square and rectangular pillar bases; you will clearly notice that the bases of the pillars do not directly lie on the floor of the church but on blocks that protrude from it. This means that they belonged to a previous monumental building. Furthermore, the entrances of the vast majority of churches of this type in Sardinia – and beyond – face west while, in our case, the entrance faces east, just like Greek and Roman temples. Since it was built on the site of pagan worship, it retains the orientation of those temples.
Finally, we suggest that you visit the Archaeological Museum on the seafront, with its fascinating wrecks of Roman ships, as well as the other monuments that are open to the public in the territory of Olbia: the nuraghe of Càbu Abbas, the sacred nuragic well of Sa Testa, the giants’ tomb of` Pèdres, the Punic walls in Via Torino, the isolated Punic settlement and the pillars of the Roman aqueduct in Via Nanni, the Roman aqueduct in Via Mincio, the castle of Pedres and the nineteenth century church in Via Antonio Spano.
Thank you for your visit.