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Whats New in Pompeii

Tyrrhenian Sea
Ionian Sea
still giving up its secrets
Excavations at Pompeii began in 1748. Today, advances in
technology are being used to preserve and conserve. And,
as Joanne Berry and Sarah Court reveal, the ancient
city still has much to tell us. So, what is new in Pompeii?
ompeii and its neighbour
Herculaneum are among the
oldest archaeological sites in
the world, but today they risk
destruction by exposure to
the elements, tourist traffic, and time. Yet
these are not new problems. As early as the
18th century, excavators applied varnish
to wall-paintings in an attempt to prevent
their decay; different types of conservation
work have taken place on site ever since.
However, the collapse of part of the Schola
Armaturarum in 2010, and subsequent minor
collapses, have highlighted the problem
18 CurrentWorldArchaeology
to the world and today it has become a
politically important issue. The challenge
now is to ensure the preservation of these
sites while continuing investigations into the
town, its inhabitants, and its history. How
can we preserve Pompeii’s past for our future?
And what more is there to learn?
Large-scale open-air excavations at
Pompeii came to an end in the 1960s
because the authorities recognised that
further excavation would only make
the conservation problem worse. But at
the same time, funding cuts and other
management problems meant that day-
Above The fountain in front of Regio I, Insula 9,
looking east on the Via dell'Abbondanza. This is one
of the many that supplied water throughout the city.
below A view of Mount Vesuvius looking across
the forum from Via delle Scuole.
Issue 51
PHOTOS: Jennifer Stephens / Jennifer & Arthur Stephens / Rebecca Benefiel
to-day maintenance halted. Conservation
took place in the best decorated houses,
but elsewhere on site was conducted on
an emergency basis. Consequently the
conservation problem worsens each year.
Now, as the EU steps in with a conservation
grant of €105 million, the hope is that
Pompeii’s decay will be slowed.
In the meantime, scholars continue their
work at Pompeii and at other nearby sites,
but, partly in reaction to the conservation
crisis and to site-management issues, the
way that they study these sites has changed.
In the 1990s teams were given an
excavated insula (housing block) to
study its evolution through stratigraphic
excavation beneath the AD 79 floor levels,
its architectural development through
examination of its walls and paintings, and
its contents through study of the original
excavation reports and inventories. As
a result our understanding of Pompeii’s
development as a Roman city has increased:
it is no longer seen as a ‘city frozen in
time’, but as a settlement with a long and
interesting history before its destruction by
Vesuvius in AD 79 (see box below right).
Most of the research carried out at
Pompeii today is smaller in scale, informed
by conservation and with the explicit
aim of studying and recording as much as
possible before it disappears forever.
While stratigraphic excavations beneath
the AD 79 levels are possible, many teams
now adopt non-invasive methods of study.
The result is that the aims and results of
these projects are more varied than those
of the past, and reflect on a wider range of
aspects of the city’s life.
Scratching the surface
During 250 years of excavation at Pompeii,
about 44ha of ruins (including 20,000m2
of wall paintings) have been uncovered,
and more than 11,000 painted or incised
inscriptions found. Rebecca Benefiel,
of Washington and Lee University, is
documenting the graffiti scratched on the
fragile plaster walls before they disappear.
above Photomosaic of the Via dell’Abbondanza,
Regio IX, Insula 7.
right Rebecca Benefiel measures a sample of
ancient graffiti. Damage to the original surface means
some graffiti, like this drawing of a man's head, are
visible only under certain lighting conditions.
Previously studied as stand-alone texts,
her innovative approach examines their
spatial and social context. She has shown
that graffiti tend to cluster in visible and
highly trafficked areas of houses, and was
clearly an accepted social activity rather
than a furtive and anonymous act of
vandalism. And everyone was at it: male
and female, slaves and the free. Messages
may be informative, comic, or even
enigmatic: the House of Maius Castricius
bears the cryptic statement: venimus huc
cupidi multo magis ire cupimus se[t] retinet
nostros illa puella pedes – we came here
desiring. [Now] we desire much more to
go, but that girl holds back our feet.
Concern with creating a record of the
site before it decays further is shared with
Jennifer and Arthur Stephens, who set up
the Via dell’Abbondanza Project in 2004.
The Via dell’Abbondanza, lined with
some of the best preserved buildings in
Pompeii, runs from the forum in the west of
the city to the Sarno Gate in the east, close to
the amphitheatre. They used state-of-the-art
equipment to create photomosaics of its
entire 900m length that record the current
condition of its facades. When the street
was partially excavated between 1911 and
1923, photography was being used for the
first time to document the work. Often,
workmen and supervisors were included in
these scenes. These photomosaics provide
a stark yet hauntingly beautiful contrast
to such earlier studies, and will form an
invaluable digital archive for scholars
studying the ancient street and conservators
aiming to preserve it.
Digital revolution
Photography and computer
reconstruction of images is playing an
a brief history of pompeii
Pompeii may have been founded by local Oscans, but from an early period both Greeks and
Etruscans took an interest in its development, undoubtedly because of its prime location on the
Bay of Naples. The Greek-influenced Doric Temple dates to the 6th century BC, and Etruscan
pottery was found in its foundations.
By the end of the 5th century the town had been conquered by the Samnites, but by the 2nd
century it was already heavily influenced by Rome, in terms of both political structure and public
buildings. In 80 BC it was one of the Italian towns that opposed Rome during the Social War, and
as a result was stormed by Sulla. Pompeii became a Roman colony, the Colonia Cornelia Veneria
Pompeianorum, and Sulla settled many of his veteran soldiers there.
The town prospered during the 1st century AD, until it was flattened by an earthquake in
AD 62. Repairs were still underway in AD 79 when Vesuvius erupted.
CurrentWorldA rchaeology 19
PHOTO: Jennifer Stephens
above Looking north on Via Stabiana from the
crossroads with Via dell’Abbondanza. The large
stepping stones enabled pedestrians to cross
without having to step down into the street.
important part in the Oplontis Project,
at the Villa of Poppaea, a couple of miles
outside Pompeii. The international
multidisciplinary team, led by John
R Clarke and Michael L Thomas of
the University of Texas at Austin has
created a fully navigable 3D model and
reconstruction of the villa.
Archival photographs from the villa’s
initial excavation and reconstruction in
below The University of Bologna's Vesuviana Project
is using digital technology to examine and create
virtual reconstructions of the buildings.
middle & right The use of iPads and other
technology is helping speed up the excavation process,
disseminating information as soon as it is recorded.
20 CurrentWorldArchaeology
the period from 1964-1984 have proved
essential for the Oplontis Project’s
reconstruction, but they have also
brought home with terrible clarity how
severe the deterioration of the villa’s
wall-paintings has been over the last
decades. The project has found a positive
use for these photos, however, using them
to reconstruct paintings for the digital
reconstruction. Clarke believes that ‘with
every year that passes, valuable evidence
disappears. Our careful and systematic
work in the villa will document this
endangered resource’. Their model will
not only be the first completely accurate
record of the actual state of the villa, it
will also digitally preserve this monument
for future generations.
Many Italian universities are active
in the Vesuvian area. The University
of Bologna’s Vesuviana Project is a
multiple-strand research project for
Pompeii and Herculaneum.
At Pompeii, its focus is the Insula of
the Centenary (IX.8) – first excavated
in 1879, exactly 1,800 years after it was
destroyed by Vesuvius. The insula has been
studied not just by archaeologists and art
historians, but by geologists, structural
engineers, chemists, IT specialists, and
conservators. Their use of archival
material – usually drawn illustrations – to
find out exactly what was revealed in the
original excavations, and which is then
combined with information from new
surveys and virtual reconstructions, has
been the key, like the Oplontis Project, to
integrating a range of evidence to further
our understanding of Roman houses.
High-tech equipment is a frequent
sight at Pompeii these days, not least
because it speeds up the recording
process and allows data to be more easily
manipulated. In 2010, the Pompeii
Archaeological Research Project: Porta
Stabia (PARP:PS), based at the University
of Cincinnati, went completely digital
in their excavations. For the first time
iPads were used to complete all the usual
form-filling related to a dig, as well as
all the technical drawings, stratigraphic
diagrams, and excavation notebooks.
Not only was information gathered more
quickly, but it could be distributed almost
immediately among the experts working
on the project instead of awaiting costly
post-excavation digitisation. And at the
same time, the project has funded the
reconstruction of many failing walls in the
area of its excavations – another sign of the
commitment that today’s archaeologists
have towards the conservation of Pompeii.
Issue 51
the Schola Armaturarum
The Schola Armaturarum (erroneously known as the House of the Gladiators) was mostly
excavated in 1915 by Vittorio Spinnazzola who was intrigued by the painted depictions of
weapons and armour that framed the wide entrance to the building. Since then there have been
many theories about its use – a school, a storeroom, a depository of gladiatorial weapons, none of
which are supported by the finds made during excavation.
Today few of the stunning wall-paintings remain. Many were lost when the building was hit
by an Allied bomb in 1943, one of over 150 dropped accidentally on Pompeii during the Second
World War. The Schola Armaturarum was restored in the 1950s and given a reinforced concrete
roof, but this did not prevent the destruction
of the remaining paintings. On 6 November
2010 heavy rains caused the collapse of part of
the building, and led to media hysteria around
the world. Funding cuts were blamed, and the
Soprintendenza was accused of apathy – an unfair
accusation given the small number of technical
staff and the huge problem of conservation.
Restoration of the building is again under way.
ABOVE Photomosaic of Regio III, Insula 3, before
(RIGHT) the collapse of the Schola Armaturarum.
Cold cases
Much of the new work now taking place at
Pompeii involves re-examining previously
excavated material. Estelle Lazer undertook
the first modern systematic study of the
human skeletal remains of the victims from
Pompeii. When she started, the skeletons
were stored in ancient buildings, which
they shared with different kinds of wildlife,
and had become disarticulated over time.
Excavated during the preceding
centuries, the intrinsic value of human
skeletons as an archaeological resource
had never been recognised. But even
compromised archaeological material
can yield valuable results: using modern
forensic techniques and statistical
studies, Lazer has overturned the long
accepted assumption that the people
who did not manage to escape the wrath
of Vesuvius were the old, the infirm, the
very young, and women. The skeletal
remains, in fact, show that the victims
reflect a random sample of a normally
distributed population.
Perhaps the most iconic images from
Pompeii are the casts of the forms of
the victims. Past interpretations have
been based on visual examination and
circumstantial evidence, which means that
they owe more to storytelling than science.
But Lazer has obtained permission from
the Soprintendenza to scientifically study
the casts with X-ray and other medical
imaging techniques. This non-invasive
work will be done in situ to ensure that
the fragile casts are not damaged, and will
provide solid information about the actual
lives and deaths of these victims.
Beyond the walls
Exciting archaeological discoveries are not
limited to the Vesuvian towns: the entire
Campanian area was densely settled, its
fertile soil cultivated by farmers. In 2006 a
group of German and Italian institutions,
headed by the German Archaeological
Institute (DAI Berlin), began to explore the
Sarno River plain that surrounds Pompeii,
Stabiae, and Nuceria. Nearly 2,000 core
samples were taken to ascertain the entire
area’s topography and geology before
the AD 79 eruption. Data on more than
150 Roman farms is shedding light on
agricultural production, land divisions, and
the ancient road network. But perhaps the
project’s most important contribution has
been to draw attention to this neglected, yet
significant, heritage before it is lost.
Sometimes conservation and excavation
has the greatest impact when the local 
below left Estelle Lazer X-rays the casts to collect
new data on Pompeii’s dead.
Middle Body cast of a man, located in the
storeroom on the west side of the forum.
right Body casts in the Garden of the Fugitives.
CurrentWorldA rchaeology 21
Illustration: Programma Vesuviana PHOTOS: PARP:PS / Estelle Lazer / Jennifer Stephens
PHOTO: Jennifer & Arthur Stephens
PHOTOS: Dr Florien Seiler / Jennifer Stephens
above Examining wood samples: the Sarno-Becken
Project is shedding new light on the use of wood,
forest ecosystems, and climatic conditions in the area
in the period leading up to the AD 79 eruption, as
well as providing accurate chronological data.
below These photos show the Pollena Trocchia
site at the start of excavations in 2007, when it was
still filled with rubbish, and after the most recent
excavation campaign in 2011. A villa and bathhouse
are slowly emerging from the modern debris.
22 CurrentWorldArchaeology
Archaeological Heritage Prize for its
work with the local community, and has
generated enough interest to ensure that the
site is protected. ‘The key has been to involve
the people of the neighbouring building,
who literally guard the site throughout the
year,’ says De Simone. The initiative has
shown that the north slope of Vesuvius was
re-inhabited soon after the eruption of AD
79. More importantly, the excavation of this
large villa and bath has united the people of
the area in their pride for their local heritage.
Pompeii’s future
Sadly, most reports on Pompeii these
days focus on the negative: collapsed
buildings, lack of funding, the prospect
of theme park-style reconstructions
to accommodate the two million plus
visitors. But this, as we have seen, is not
above The view north across Pompeii towards
Vesuvius, with the Garden of the Fugitives in the
foreground on the right.
an accurate picture. There is still much
to learn from the Vesuvian area. The
range of current initiatives illustrates the
enormous energy of archaeologists who
are actively contributing to the recording
of these unique sites and coming up with
challenging new theories. Nor is all hope
lost for preservation. Just down the road,
the Herculaneum Conservation Project
(see box opposite) demonstrates how a
planned and comprehensive approach to
conservation can have a dramatic impact
on the preservation of an archaeological
site, while also improving our knowledge.
It is all far from doom and gloom under
the shadow of Vesuvius. 
Issue 51
PHOTOS: Girolamo Ferdinando De Simone
community is involved. In 1998 the remains
of a villa were found on public land at
Masseria de Carolis in Pollena Trocchia
on the north slope of Vesuvius, next to
a construction site. The construction
company was owned by the camorra (the
local mafia). It had been using volcanic
debris from the villa to mix mortar, and
later tried to destroy the site. Fortunately,
the authorities found out and put a stop to
it. Even so, after a brief study the site was
abandoned and became an illegal rubbish
dump. As lead archaeologist Girolamo
Ferdinando De Simone explains, ‘When we
arrived at the site, it couldn’t be seen. The
small fence around it was half torn down
and inside it there was a washing machine,
some tyres, and even a Christmas tree. The
rest of the site was literally covered by trash.’
The Apolline Project has been excavating
here since 2007. In 2011 it won the European
authorities have to deal with, and a serious
problem at Pompeii. At Herculaneum,
this is tackled by draining all the water
on site down to the ancient shoreline and
then out to sea. In advance of such works
on the ancient beach level, the HCP’s
archaeologists cleared and studied the area,
discovering that in a pre-Roman phase the
natural bedrock of tuff had been quarried
to provide building materials for the
construction of the city above. In addition,
a remaining section of the original Roman
beach of black volcanic sand was found.
But the most unexpected – and unique
– discovery occurred at the foot of the
House of the Telephus Relief, where the
house’s original timber roof was found four
floors below its original position (CWA
42). It had been swept off the house by the
force of the eruption. Not only had all the
different parts of the roof survived – some
carbonised though most waterlogged – but
pigments were found on the ceiling panels
n the last 10 years many lessons have been restoring 20th-century reinforced
revealing an elaborate decorative scheme.
learned by archaeologists and conservation concrete lintels, and consolidating wall
A test trench was excavated below the
specialists working at Herculaneum that paintings and bubbling mosaics.
water table beside this building when a new
Managing both the rain and ground
could also be applied to Pompeii.
roof was planned to replace the original
water on an archaeological site is one
The last major archaeological campaigns
and it revealed that the foundations were
of the most important issues that the
at Herculaneum were the excavations
a previously unknown extra floor of
of the ancient shoreline in the
the building. It transpired that the
1980s, when over 300 skeletons
below The collapsed roof from the House of the Telephus Relief –
the original roof had fallen through four floors.
Romans themselves had filled it in
were uncovered, and the work in
and buried it in the hope of protecting
the 1990s on a corner of the Villa
this seafront property from the
of the Papyri. However, these
encroaching sea.
projects coincided with the worst
Archaeological research on the
moment in Herculaneum’s recent
ancient shoreline showed that, in the
history when a failure to maintain
period before the AD 79 eruption,
the already excavated areas of
Herculaneum was seriously affected
the ancient city resulted in two
by bradyseism – a phenomenon that
thirds of the site being closed to
occurs in seismic areas, where the
the public as buildings and their
earth’s surface rises and lowers, and
decorations crumbled.
which is particularly visible in coastal
Since 2001, thanks to the longtowns as the sea appears to retreat and
term commitment of the Packard
Humanities Institute, working
The Surburban Baths illustrate the
together with the Soprintendenza
problems clearly: the building had
and the British School at Rome,
been repaired in places as its tuff blocks
emphasis has been placed on
were eroded by the action of the sea,
conservation. A decade of work by
and many of the large windows that
the Herculaneum Conservation
brought light into it had to be partially
Project (HCP) has not solved every
blocked in the same period to prevent
problem, but all the Roman streets
the sea from entering.
have been reopened to the public
Recent works around the Villa of
and a range of buildings have been
the Papyri by the Soprintendenza
made safe by re-establishing a
aimed to return this archaeological
water drainage network, replacing
area to a manageable state. To date 
collapsing modern roofing,
is leading the way
PHOTOS: Sosandra/HCP /Andrew Selkirk /
CurrentWorldA rchaeology 23
PHOTOS: Andrew Selkirk / Brian Donovan/HCP ILLUSTRATION: Aldo Cinque/HCP
above Diagram showing the fluctuating sea
levels along the coastal edge of Herculaneum.
source Joanne Berry, Swansea University,
Sarah Court, Herculaneum Conservation
Project, s.court@herculaneum.org.
only part of the Villa has been exposed.
As most of it lies beneath the modern
town centre of Ercolano, it is unlikely to
ever be completely excavated. But the
recent works demonstrate how much
can be learned from the areas that have
been uncovered.
A room on a lower level of the Villa,
one corner of which had been explored
previously, was more fully excavated,
revealing its extraordinary stucco
decorations. Archaeologists have shown
how the room was being redecorated
at the time of the eruption. Some
stucco panels had been prepared by
the decorators but not completed and
the last brushstroke can be seen on an
uncompleted border.
The work undertaken by the HCP
and the SANP has not just preserved the
material remains of the past for future
research, but has generated a whole series
of archaeological results that arguably
would never have emerged without the
focus given by the conservation priorities.
The richness of the Vesuvian sites means
24 CurrentWorldArchaeology
that work even in previously excavated
areas or insignificant corners never fails to
turn up new results that change the way
we think about Roman life. 
below The stunning stucco artwork in the Villa
of the Papyri, at Herculaneum, was in the process
of being redecorated when it was destroyed by the
volcanic eruption of AD 79.
Apolline Project: www.apollineproject.org/
Herculaneum Conservation Project:
Oplontis Project: www.oplontisproject.org/
Pompeii Archaeological Research Project:
Porta Stabia: classics.uc.edu/pompeii/
Sarno-Becken Project: www.dainst.org/de/
node/23679?ft=all, www.salve-research.org
Vesuviana Project: www.vesuviana.info/,
Via dell’Abbondanza Project: www.pompeii
SANP: www.pompeiisites.org
For up-to-date news and discussion: www.
Acknowledgments: We would like
to thank Regina Gee, John R Clarke, Jennifer
and Arthur Stephens, Estelle Lazer, Steven
Ellis, Pia Kastenmeier, Girolamo Ferdinando
De Simone, Antonella Coralini, and Rebecca
Benefiel. Thanks are due to the Soprintendenza
Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e
Pompeii for use of images of its sites.
Issue 51