Why is the site of Pompeii important to archaeologists?
When Vesuvius violently erupted in AD 79, completely covering towns in the Bay of Naples, predominantly Pompeii and Herculaneum, it seemed that almost all trace of these settlements was gone. Yet, it resulted in almost the exact opposite. For although these towns were buried and partially destroyed, the eruption actually ‘preserved them in time’, waiting for rediscovery. When excavations began at Herculaneum in 1738 and in Pompeii ten years later, it marked the start of a new era for the lost cities and, more importantly, a new era for archaeology and historical research. Today, these sites are living museums, and their continued excavations, conservation and restorations are still as important today as they were 250 years ago, allowing archaeologists and historians to constantly learn about these cities and the ancient history of Italy and Rome.
While the Spanish King, Carlo III, is mainly attributed with establishing the first excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1738, it is Prince d’Elboeuf who first made waves at the site in 1711. When pieces of marble were uncovered by workmen while digging a well in the vicinity of Resina, the town built on top of the buried Herculaneum, d’Elboeuf was intrigued by the finds and investigated their source. A Statue of Hercules followed by statues of three women were retrieved, highlighting the importance of the site to d’Elboeuf, who continued his excavations for a few years, seemingly becoming the first person to excavate these lost cities. It was the retrieval of the three statues, known as the ‘Vestal Virgins’ that sparked King Carlo III to resume excavations in 1738 – his new bride Maria Amalia had admired the statues when they arrived in Dresden, and her arrival in Italy coincidentally coincided with a return to excavations (Bowersock, 1978).
Although the excavations under Carlo, headed by Rocque Joachim de Alcubierre, were far from scientific, receiving a lot of negativity from contemporaries and historians during the 18th and 19th centuries, it really did mark the beginning for modern archaeology. As Alexander Echlin writes, “archaeology as a discipline did not really exist beforehand” (Echlin, 2014), and the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum were something that had never really been done before – it was very much a learning experience for all involved, even if it wasn’t the most methodological approach. While excavations during this time were still more of a ‘treasure hunt’ style dig, Carlo understood the importance of the finds and had them displayed in the Museo Ercolanese, even though this display was more of a way to promote his kingdom, rather than for historical and archaeological prosperity.
With each new head of operations, the more systematic and scientific the excavation became, going from an 18th century treasure hunt to 21st century archaeology. Karl Weber, becoming head of operations in 1750, was the first the carry out excavations somewhat methodically, following street plans and entering buildings through their doors, rather than just tunnelling in through walls and destroying frescoes, as had been done previously. However, a haphazard approach to archaeological excavation would continue until 1860, when Giuseppe Fiorelli was appointed the new head of excavations. It was from here that a more modern archaeological approach was taken with Herculaneum and Pompeii. Weber’s approach may have seen to be more systematic than his predecessors, but it was Fiorelli who truly brought a more systematic and scientific approach to the archaeology of these sites. Fiorelli divided the uncovered area of Pompeii into nine regions, each containing up to twenty-two blocks, known as insulae, and then numbering each building, a system that is still in use today to classify the different areas of Pompeii.
However, Fiorelli is probably best known for his creation of plaster casts at Pompeii, known as the Fiorelli process. After discovering body cavities in the ash layer, he filled them with plaster of Paris, enabling the hardened ash to be chipped away, leaving eerie figures of the final moments of those who remained in the city, and capturing details like clothing. Many of these casts still contain the bones of the victims, and modern technology has enabled the casts to be scanned and the bones studied to provide more information about the inhabitants of the city. Even though it’s clear that many Pompeian’s fled the city before it could be covered with 4 metres of ash, the remains of those who stayed have given great insight into the lives of those who inhabited the city before it’s tragic downfall. Fiorelli’s plaster process was not just used for body cavities, with casts made of wooden shutters, doors and furniture. Wilhelmina Jashemski also used the process while excavating the gardens at Pompeii, creating casts of the root cavities found, enabling archaeologists to determine what plants were grown in the city and what types of produce was consumed.
It’s not just root cavities that have enabled a deeper understanding of food consumption in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Through the discovery of carbonised remains of fruit and bread, the latter of which was found in large quantities in shops and private houses, has given such an unprecedented insight into food production and consumption in Pompeii. Seeds and cereal remains have, according to Murphy, Thompson and Fuller, “provided a unique research opportunity to undertake a diachronic study of urban Pompeii plant food consumption and discards” (Murphy, et al., 2013), increasing our knowledge of daily life in Pompeii and how it compared to that of other Roman towns, both before and after the eruption of AD 79. The archaeobotanical research of the site, which has had less of a focus compared to that of traditional archaeology, has added a new perspective to our understanding of Pompeii. Even though there is evidence of the numerous shops, bars and bakeries that were scattered through the city, the food remains have enabled archaeologists and historians to get much closer to the those who were living in Pompeii.
Though the eruption of Vesuvius caused substantial damage to Pompeii, followed by salvaging and pillaging in the period after the disaster, the preservation caused by the eruption itself has made the city ‘a truly unique historical record’ (Posadas, 2015), allowing historians, archaeologists and the world to essentially step back in time. And while the site is not technically ‘frozen in time’, given that many inhabitants fled with belongings and the subsequent destruction, it’s an extraordinary piece of history. According to Renfrew and Bahn, the city remains ‘the most complete urban excavation ever undertaken’ (Renfrew & Bahn, 2017), and has drastically increased the historical and archaeological record for the Roman period of history, enabling us to develop a snapshot of what life was like in the city, as well as the rest of the Roman world.
For archaeologists, Pompeii and Herculaneum offer a unique experience as they continue to uncover the remains of the two cities, and the secrets that have remained hidden for nearly 2000 years. For over 250 years, they have been continually worked on and studied, and as technological and archaeological methods have improved, more and more has been discovered about the lost cities and their inhabitants. Archaeological excavations at the sites not only enable us to uncover the history of these cities, but they also offer an insight into the history of archaeology and how it has progressed over the past 200 years. And although the sites have moved to focus more on conservation and restoration, there is still so much to be uncovered through archaeology. Pompeii and Herculaneum will continue to capture the curiosity of visitors, historians and archaeologists for generations to come.
Welcome To My History Nook
I thought I would add this little section to my blog to share some history pieces with the world. I'm by no means the greatest history scholar, and many of the posts that will appear are essays written for university, but I hope you find them interesting nonetheless.
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