Take your time, Do it right

25 Mar

I visited the ruins at the Roman city of Pompeii this past summer. It was awesome, but I noticed that I didn’t have access to much of the city. Many buildings were roped off and closed to the public. On top of that, at least one-third of the site is still buried. I wanted to know what gives; Why can’t I see the places that are already cleared, and why are the archaeologists taking so long to dig?

The answer is, like many wise answers, learned through experience. Here’s some highlights from the history of Pompeii.

AD 79 – Mt. Vesuvius erupts over a period of two days. On day one, an explosion creates a tall column of ash that slowly settles over the surrounding area and buries Pompeii almost 10 feet deep. On day two, a series of pyroclastic flows begins, spreading gas and ash that were  hot enough to melt your face off (250°C). There’s debate as to whether the victims of Pompeii were killed by asphyxiation from the falling ash or heat from the pyroclastic flow.  There is not debate  as to whether both fates suck.

AD 1599 – Pompeii is “Rediscovered” while digging water channels to move the Sarno River. Architect Domenico Fontana is brought on to examine the site. He uncovers some frescoes, sees sexually charged content, then covers them up again. It’s kind of a rediscovery, and as close as you’re going to get in Italy during the time of the counter reformation

AD 1748 – Spain’s Bourbon Kings rediscover Pompeii and several other cities in the region. Here’s how they helped; they unburied buildings, gathered artifacts, and chiseled frescoes off of the wall for their own personal collection.

AD 1960 – Pompeii is a tourist’s dream come true. All of the buildings that have been excavated are open to the public. The remaining frescoes and mosaics are clearly aged, but guide books as respected as Fodor’s suggest splashing a little water on them to bring them back to life.

Alright. Here’s the lesson from the first 1700 years after Mt Vesuvius; if you protect stuff from the sun, water and air, it will stay preserved. It works in Italy. It works in Egypt. It works in Turkey. What happens if you don’t protect stuff from the sun, the water, or the air, and people touch it?


Fountain at the House of the Fawn, Pompeii

Rust, weathering, and deterioration. It’s such a problem that in the past 20 years, Pompeii has been put on a conservation watch list three times by the World Monuments Fund. Addressing those issues is no small mater though . Due to it’s size (it’s a city covering 163 acres), the cost of adequately funding this work has been estimated at over $300 million.

How has Pompeii responded? Quite intelligently. The Soprintendenza Archaeologica di Pompeii have closed off many of the buildings and erected roofs over them to limit their exposure. Additionally, and probably the more far-sighted move, the Soprintendenza imposed a moratorium on new excavations. Taking a break from digging focuses the resources and attention on conservation and preservation.

So, while we may picture archaeologists like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft uncovering lost treasures, that’s only half of the story. The other half is preserving those treasures for future generations. That’s why I support Pompeii’s conservation efforts, even when it means that I don’t get to see all of the buildings and frescoes.


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