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Tomb Serpents!

The Messapians lived north of modern Bari, Italy, long before eighth century BC Greeks arrived to colonize the Gulf of Taranto. Romans conquered the Messapian area five hundred years later, in 266 BC.

We were in Messapian territory at the ruins of a city called Egnazia to do some research for my book. In the story, a voyage that includes the main characters stops in this place. Most of the things there now date to Roman times: a piece of the Via Traiana (Trajan’s Road), the Amphitheatre, the Forum, the Civil Basilica (Town Hall), the hall of the Three Graces and the Shrine of Eastern Divinities. Though too new to be part of the tale, my bride and I were, as always, delighted to explore them.

But, for the book, it was the lay of the land and the old Messapian necropolis that drew me. For all practical purposes, these tombs had been made by the people who would have met my characters. So, it was a priceless opportunity to go down into them.

Only one problem. No one was around as we approached the underground burial chambers off on the edge of the site. Against a backdrop of large trees, we could see the rusty metal railing of a modern stairway leading down. On it was a sign, hand-lettered in marking-pen. We drew closer and saw that it was a warning: “Attenzione, Serpente nella Tomba!” (Look Out! Snakes are in the tomb!). It’s always such a bother to arrive at a place right after that pesky Medusa. She’s always dropping things.

At the head of the narrow, leaf-littered stairs, we looked at each other and smiled, thinking of our good friend, Kerry, who goes orbital at the first hint of slithery friends nearby. But, we just dusted off our Parseltongue vocabulary and went on down.

As with most underground areas in Italian archaeological sites, a few lights had been strung through many of the chambers, and a third or so of them were burned out. Fortunately, one of the main chamber walls had collapsed and some daylight reached the most interesting parts.

Tomb Robbers' Were Busy Here

We prudently didn’t venture into the darkest rooms and so avoided seeing all but one snake, who was apparently on some snakey errand or another, paying us no mind as he rustled sinuously down a passageway between the rock-cut rooms.

Soon after that, though, my bride announced earnestly that I had all I needed for my book; it was time to climb back up. So we did. The tombs were much more akin to Etruscan ones than to the Mycenaean variety back where my main characters lived. And that’s what I really needed a feel for. Besides, the snakes weren’t poisonous anyway. Were they?

Warm sunshine on our faces felt good and the trees were quite lovely as we strolled back to check out some ancient Eastern divinities.

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  1. July 16, 2011 at 7:46 am

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