Family looking for broken sewer pipe finds 2,500 years of history

A family in Lecce, an ancient city on the tip of Italy’s boot heel, found a veritable historical complex under their feet when they began digging to find a faulty sewer pipe in 2000. Luciano Faggiano family had acquired the building at Via Ascanio Grandi 56 planning to use the first floor as a trattoria and live with his wife and youngest son upstairs. It was a historical property — part of the convent of Santa Maria delle Curti which was closed in the 17th century and the remains of whose cells are still visible in the first floor walls — but renovated with all modern conveniences. When one of those conveniences, the toilet, kept backing up, Faggiano enlisted his two older sons who no longer live at home to spend a week helping him dig underneath the house to find the broken sewer pipe causing the problem.

But one week quickly passed, as father and sons discovered a false floor that led down to another floor of medieval stone, which led to a tomb of the Messapians, who lived in the region centuries before the birth of Jesus. Soon, the family discovered a chamber used to store grain by the ancient Romans, and the basement of a Franciscan convent where nuns had once prepared the bodies of the dead.

Faggiano kept digging, removing the spoil in the trunk of his car, even tying a rope around the chest of his 12-year-old son to lower him into passages that were too small for the adults. Mrs. Faggiano was not informed of this. Eventually the neighbors got suspicious and called the cops. Since unapproved archaeological excavations are illegal, even when the original aim was sewer maintenance, the authorities blocked the dig for a year until making a deal with the Faggianos that they could continue under the supervision of archaeologists from the local Superintendence of Archaeological Goods and architects Franco and Maria Antonietta De Paolis.

All of this was done on the Faggianos’ dime and with their labor. The city just watched, ever more excitedly, as the Faggiano family’s excavations revealed the tomb of a Roman infant, other tombs and ossuaries, a deep pit that served as a charnel house where bodies were left to decompose before the bones were recovered and interred, water catchment cisterns, circular postholes cut into rock for Mesappian dwellings, grain silos, an ancient street, a well 10 meters (33 feet) deep that is still fed by the waters of the Idume, an underground river seven kilometers (4.3 miles) long that traverses the city of Lecce before emptying into the Adriatic, tunnels that may have been used by the religious orders — Templars, the Santa Maria convent and Franciscans have all inhabited the place at different times since the Middle Ages — to move around the city without being seen, a Messapian-era pavement (ca. 5th century B.C.), frescoed walls, ancient vases, an early episcopal ring, ceramics from the 1600s, an ancient altar among many other treasures.

More than 4,000 artifacts have been unearthed during the decade-plus of digging. They did find the sewer pipe after a few years, by the way, and it was broken. By then, of course, the trattoria idea was back-burnered and Luciano Faggiano rented one of the floors in the building to help fund this voyage of exploration through the layers of Lecce’s history. He’s still planning to open a trattoria, but in a new building. This one is now the Museum Faggiano where people can go down into the bowels of the structure to see the ancient history for themselves.

The museum’s website has a photo gallery which has sad little low res pictures, but the virtual tour is very satisfying as long as you click on the “View on Google Maps” link in the upper left corner which opens a lovely full screen navigation window with thumbnails to guide you through the highlights.

20 thoughts on “Family looking for broken sewer pipe finds 2,500 years of history

  1. Omigosh. What a fabulous story. Wouldn’t that we all could end up with a museum in our basement thanks to a plumbing snafu! 😆

    1. I’ll wager it was that first visit from the authorities that let the cat out of the bag, and then just of the finds. I doubt she learned about the dangling of her young son into ancient tunnels for years afterwards. :giggle:

  2. LOL! True. Having several man children of my own I can just hear dad saying “Don’t tell your mom.”

    The virtual tour is stunning. This has to be my (second) favorite story (so far nothing tops Richard III).

    1. I doubt we’ll beat the Richard III find for the sheer against-all-odds of it during our lifetimes. Meanwhile, let’s all move to Lecce and start digging in our basements. 🙂

  3. Way back in the olde time days of borte, I was cast as the father of a kid who found a dinosaur bone when digging in their garden. I didn’t think about it until today, but maybe that’s part of the psychology of why I enjoy fantasizing about finding something – something powerful or ancient or world changing. But now I live in a brand new development so if I start digging my tunnel to the center of the earth, I’ll likely only find rocks. And not the cool kind of rocks. Charlie Brown Halloween Rocks.


    1. Hey, maybe one of them sad rocks will prove to be a lovely geode full of sparkly crystals. Did you have a quality dinosaur bone prop in this theatrical of your youth? Because a gigantic shin bone is enough to lure anyone into the eternal obsession of finding buried awesomeness.

  4. What an amazing article. Fascinating! I, too, loved the Mrs. Fabiano line. A masterpiece of understatement. 😉

  5. Wow! I plan at some time to go to Rome and do an “underground” Rome tour. I’ve heard that there are many house in Rome built over thousands of years of history, and some with underground tunnels that have always just “been there.”

    1. Oh yes, underground Rome is so rich, in many ways richer than the surface. These ancient cities have an iceberg thing going on where the base is much larger than the top. One of my favorite sites when I was a kid was the church of San Celemente which has a Mithraeum in the basement. It’s fascinating to walk through those the layers of history.

  6. What a fascinating find!
    But am I the only one who thinks it’s strange that the authorities get to decide whether people are allowed to dig and under what conditions (I am very much in favour of the supervision by archeologists, by the way) and yet they don’t pay for any of that? Especially since I’m sure they’ll welcome the finds as a way to attract tourism?
    And I was also wondering how, with so many layers of history apparently so closely under the ground of the historic buildings, they can have missed that when building the sewer system in the first place. If it took the family a few years to find the broken pipe, it must pass through the layers with these finds in them…

    1. I think in cities like Lecce which are pancaked from bedrock to bell tower with history, authorities and experts have to be involved to ensure the collective cultural patrimony is not harmed. I suspect if this had happened 30 years ago, Ministry personnel would have stepped in, but budgets are so tight now they just took on a purely supervisory role. It’s on the parasitic side, to be sure, that the property owners had to do all the work and fund it. We’re lucky that the Faggiano family are so committed to preserving the history they stumbled on as to be willing to continue the excavations without financial support.

      On the other hand, the museum is privately owned, and it’s clearly awesome so I hope they make back their investment and then some. The first floor is available for events, btw. Now that’s a wedding reception worth attending.

  7. Fantastic article. There was a lovely story a while ago about a couple who were renovating a property in Soho and discovered the first Turkish bath in London (and a house of ill-repute!) in their basement. Wish I had such an exciting property. Love the idea of the layers of history beneath our feet.

  8. YES. As a matter of fact we did have a dinosaur shin bone prop! We had to make another because the teacher/director broke one. He was demonstrating something for one argument scene, he grabs the bone ( :hattip: ) and it’s much too much for the paper mache to withstand.

  9. Oh, heavenly! The story and the find. I too loved the line “Mrs. Faggiano was not informed.” Personally, I’d get suspicious if it took that long for the men-folk in my family to find a broken sewer line, but then, I don’t have a historic city underneath me. I am impressed with the family. Clearly they were highly committed to what they were doing, and were doing it in a responsible way. I know enough about Italy that I understand why people might be reluctant to get the officials involved (with the lack of funding, the Faggianos might never have found the broken pipe). I’m glad it worked out for them and for the magnificent find. I wonder how much it would cost to get there to see in person? This is just so cool.

  10. It sounds like an H. P. Lovecraft story: have any of you read “Rats In The Walls”?

    It doesn’t end well. Just saying.

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