Preservation at Pompeii
Image 1: Map of the Bay of Naples, Italy. Image from: http://www.markville.ss.yrdsb.edu.on.ca/projects/classof2008/chong2/hrivnak/template.htm
The ancient city of Pompeii, located in the Bay of Naples, maintains a rich history as a vibrant city during the Roman times (Image 1). Nevertheless, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 led to the total destruction and preservation of the site. Pompeii laid untouched for almost 2000 years, until excavations began in 1748 and continued to the present day (Slayman 1997). During these excavations, the daily life of the citizens who had been frozen in time was revealed in the form of residential architecture, wall frescos, household objects, and casts of the people themselves (Image 2). Although the information collected from these excavations remains valuable to the history of the site, the integrity of the newly exposed architecture, art, and objects are continually being threatened by both natural forces and human activity. Therefore, one must ask themselves if it is appropriate to excavate a site, such as Pompeii, if the current preservation techniques may not be sufficient in caring for the materials uncovered? Such a question is constantly on the minds of conservators and addresses an ethical issue that is prevalent in the field of archaeology and conservation today.
Image 2: Archaeological plan of Pompeii. Image from: http://www.dogsofpompeii.com/tour.php
Once structures and objects are exposed by excavations, the deterioration process begins. Factors that affect the integrity of the archaeological materials can be natural and/or anthropogenic (Slayman 1997). Natural deterioration factors include exposure to sun, wind, rain, erosion, or even fluctuation in temperature. Botanicals also play an active role in the deterioration of structural elements of the city by growing within the matrix of the walls, causing them to collapse, or behind the plaster frescos, forcing them from the wall. On the other hand, humans have a hand in the destruction of the site. International wars have destroyed parts of the site in addition to priceless objects, both of which were unable to be recovered. Tourists visiting the site cause daily wear and tear, especially when theft or vandalism is involved. Archaeological excavation itself is a destructive technique that does not necessarily allow for re-excavations in the future. It is these deterioration processes that are a prevalent issue in the preservation of the site today.
Image 3: House of Amarantus. Left: Photo from the 1950s excavations showing the amphorae. Right: Photo from the 1994 excavations showing the same amphorae. Image from: Picking Up the Pieces
Early excavators of Pompeii gave little notice to the care and maintenance of the site (Slayman 1997). Once unearthed, various features were directly exposed to environmental conditions and have not survived to the present day. For example, a group of amphorae in the House of Amarantus, which was initially documented in the 1950s, remains today only as shattered vessels (Image 3). In other parts of the site, frescos have lost their pigment color and some walls have collapsed altogether. Essentially, these early excavators were not able or did not have the means to handle the maintenance needs of the site after it was exposed.
Although conservation techniques are far more advanced than what they were in the 1700s, there are still some conservation issues that they are difficult to address today. The restoration and maintenance of Pompeii is a top priority, but is hindered not only by the sheer size of the city, but also by the availability of manpower and the amount of funds that are able to be accessed. When a new section of Pompeii is exposed, both support and protective structures have to be constructed in order to care for that portion of the site. Further restoration needs to be enacted to maintain the structural integrity of the walls and floors. All objects uncovered in the excavations need to be properly cared for and stored, which requires space in a storage facility or museum. Therefore, undertaking an excavation does not stop when the field season has finished, but continues for many years to come. If the resources, manpower, and funding are not available to care for and maintain the site once the excavations are completed, it would seem to be unethical to excavate the site in the first place. However, since the time of the first excavations of Pompeii, the techniques of conservation, preservation, and restoration have improved dramatically and are able compensate for the earlier shortcomings.
Digital archaeology has allowed conservators to effectively care for, maintain, and document the remains of Pompeii today (Bruschini 1991). Digital databases preserve various features and objects from the site by documenting the more technical information associated with their state of preservation. Such information can include general descriptions, a history of restorations, damage analyses, graphic documentation, etc. Databases also allows archaeologists and conservators to gain information on the distribution patterns of features and objects in order to learn more about city planning and daily life at Pompeii. Additionally, photographic documentation allows for the condition of various features to be monitored over time by noting any changes that may be caused by deterioration processes. Such images also permit conservators to simulate restoration techniques digitally, prior to implementing the modifications on the feature itself. Furthermore, three-dimensional modeling enables conservators to reconstruct objects and architectural features which can assist them in the restoration process. It is clear that these recent technological advances in digital archaeological has dramatically improved the way in which a site, such as Pompeii, is documented and maintained.
Pompeii has a rich history that is preserved in a layer of volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Since the first excavations in 1748, the techniques to preserve, conserve, and restore the site have significantly improved. Digital archaeology has opened up additional avenues in maintaining the site by enabling the conservator to observe changes in features and objects over time through databases and photographs. However, there is still much to be uncovered and learned from the two-thirds of the exposed Pompeii, as well as further advances in conservation techniques before the last third of the site is exposed and excavated.
1991 Imaging Pompeii. In Archaeology. 44(2):32-35.
Slayman, Andrew L.
1997 Picking Up the Pieces. In Archaeology. 50(6):34-36.
General Conservation, Public Outreach