Home | Archaeology Magazine | More Digs | AIA
Archaeology's Interactive Dig
July 2001-August 2003InteractiveDig Pompeii

Consular Way, one of Pompeii's main streets

Going Down the Drain: Imogen Smythson (University of Bradford) collects a soil sample from a drain in the inn.

An early map showing the extent of the early excavations in Pompeii. The triangle in the upper-left corner is our insula, VI,1.

Exhumed but not excavated: an eighteenth-century engraving shows Pompeii's initial clearances.

A visitor watches the AAPP work in the "shrine."

Photos courtesy of the AAPP unless otherwise noted. Click on images to enlarge.

What Happened in Pompeii

Pompeii is undoubtedly one of the world's best known archaeological sites. Its fame comes from its dramatic destruction and extraordinary preservation as a result of an eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

On February 5, A.D. 62, Pompeii was at the epicenter of a severe earthquake that caused considerable structural damage to buildings and the infrastructure of the city. It is clear that the process of repair and redevelopment was slow and extensive. It involved projects such as the embellishment of the Forum and the rebuilding of the Temple of Isis, and also attempts to re-establish the city's water supply, which had been severely disrupted. The old notion that the elite citizens abandoned Pompeii at this time leaving the city neglected is being challenged by new work, including our own.

On August 20, A.D. 79, Pompeii was rocked by more earth tremors, although they do not seem to have been as severe as the 62 earthquake. Springs in the area dried up. The ancient Pompeians did not recognize that these were signs of the imminent eruption of Vesuvius. Therefore when the volcano went off between noon and 1pm on August 24, it caught everyone by surprise. According to Pliny the Younger, a 12-mile high cloud of ash and rock was thrown into the air, blocking out the sun. By chance, the wind was blowing from the northwest, so when the volcanic matter began to fall, it was blown in the direction of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae, and other sites to the southeast. The eruption produced total darkness, as well as electrical discharges from atmospheric disturbances. Ash, pumice, and rock fell, initially with a low density. This piled up in streets, on rooftops, and fell in through every open space such as windows. Some roofs collapsed under its weight and falling debris may also have caused injury.

This phase of the eruption continued for the rest of the day. People wandered around in darkness, pushing their way through pumice and debris, which was piling up. Some may have tried to escape, while others decided to wait it out. Surely no one had experienced such a catastrophe before so they did not know what to expect from it.

Shortly after midnight, ground surges of magma and volcanic mud began as well as pyroclastic surges, avalanches of noxious gases and ash rushing from the cone of Vesuvius with terrific force at over 100 kilometers an hour. Herculaneum, which was situated at the base of Vesuvius, was hit with a surge and entombed in volcanic mud. Several pyroclastic surges roared toward Pompeii but were stopped from doing too much damage by the northern city wall right behind our city block. At about 7:30 am, enough pumice stones and debris had piled up that a pyroclastic surge finally rolled up over the top of the city wall, shearing off any buildings that were not already buried by volcanic matter. All people still present in the city died instantly, literally baked alive by the hot air of the surge. This is why on many of the plaster casts the limbs are pulled in toward the body, in what is described as the "pugilistic attitude," as the heat contracted all their flexor muscles.

Thousands of people died within the city during the eruption. Many more were probably killed in the surrounding landscape as they tried to flee, but little archaeological work has been done on Pompeii's hinterland. A powdery deposit followed the most destructive surge and when the eruption finally ceased late on August 25, only the largest structures in the city such as the Amphitheater and the Grand Palaestra were probably identifiable.

Pompeii and Herculaneum were to remain buried for around 1,700 years. Survivors of the eruption must have decided that rebuilding on the site was out of the question, but some researchers claim that there were signs that for a time people lived in the ruins, and a fishing community probably existed at the mouth of the nearby river Sarno. During the later Roman period, and into the Middle Ages, Pompeii was forgotten, apart from perhaps a remnant folk memory, only existing as a name for the area, La Cività. Between 1594 and 1600, Domenico Fontana dug an underground channel through Pompeii, but no further investigations in the area were made until the excavation of the buried Campanian towns began in Herculaneum in 1709. At this time Italy was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In March 1748, Rocco Gioacchino de Alcubiere, a surveying engineer, was sent by King Charles III of Spain with a mission to supply the Spanish court with ancient statues and other treasures. He inspected the water channel dug by Fontana and learned that at the place called La Cività objects of antiquity had been found. The excavations at Pompeii have continued ever since.

In the early 1980s, a separate Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei was created, responsible for all the Vesuvian sites. In 1995, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo became the Soprintendente of Pompeii. There is now an exciting phase of research at Pompeii, including new fieldwork, such as ours, which aims at discovering the historical sequence of urban development in the city. Alongside the research are the efforts to conserve the monument and present to the millions of visitors coming each year. An important step has been the law passed in 1997 allowing the Soprintendenza to retain the revenue from all gate receipts. This has massively increased the resources available for conservation.

Why Dig?

For over 200 years now, we have been able to revisit the same moment in Pompeii's history, the moment it was fossilized as an archaeological site. Year after year, visitors have meandered through its alleys and moseyed through its buildings, but have always been tourists stuck in A.D. 79. Excavation below the level of the destruction has enabled us to move across time and throughout our insula's history--from that late August day in A.D. 79 back through the ages to the fourth century B.C. Perhaps even earlier. What were these bars before they were bars? When was this workshop built? Was this house here in the first century B.C.? In the second century B.C.? In the third? What did it look like? Excavation below the A.D. 79 level allows us to travel back in time and understand the whole history of VI,1 from that final August doomsday to the insula's first instance of human activity.

In fact, our time-travel is two-fold.

With each stroke of the trowel, we move further and further back from A.D. 79. At the same time, we are moving forward from the mid-sixteenth century. As archaeologists working in Pompeii, we are part of a long history and tradition of digging this ancient city. The archaeological site was first discovered in 1549, when an Italian named Domenico Fontana dug a water channel through Pompeii, but the dead city was left entombed. Within a century, the age of royal treasure hunting and piracy swept through the ancient city. In 1748, King Charles III of Spain commissioned his engineer to decorate the royal court with antiquities. Workmen carted out acres of lapilli, and finally the streets, the frescoes, the mosaics, and even the skeletons of a once-vibrant city were picked open. Parts of ancient Pompeii--buried, protected, and preserved for nearly 17 centuries--had finally been cleared. In this first rush for Pompeian booty, VI,1 was cleared, but not recorded. The initial workmen have left us only a few sketchy plans and notes, while the insula was ransacked of its contents.

From the late eighteenth century, Pompeii opened its doors to wealthy and educated visitors. The principal entrance was the Herculaneum Gate, making VI,1 the first stop along the grand tour. Artists and scholars flocked to the city. Their watercolors and journals documented the splendors of the insula shortly after their exhumation.

Yet visitors' fascination with VI,1 was short-lived. Tourists, scholars, artists, and investors quickly shifted their interests towards the dramatic clearances occurring elsewhere in the city. VI,1 had been disinterred from its protective grave of lapilli, but now it was abandoned to the ravages of the elements.

In 1926, the young and dynamic Amedeo Maiuri, recently installed as the chief archaeologist of Pompeii, returned to the abandoned insula. Here he pioneered a new age in Pompeian archaeology: excavations below the destruction level. His approach was fresh, his question was innovative: what was this area like well before the eruption of A.D. 79? Archaeology and public interest in this part of the ancient city was immediately resuscitated. Maiuri's policy of wise-destruction--sacrificing some of the destruction level to look at earlier phases of the city--triumphed throughout the scholarly world.

The brilliance of his legacy is proven in the fact that we are asking the very same question today. To follow in Maiuri's footsteps is a privilege, especially given the advances in the archaeological sciences we now enjoy. Though our tools today--the trowels, shovels, buckets, and brushes--are nearly identical to Maiuri's, many advances have been made in archaeological method and methodology over the course of the past 70+ years. We are now able to reexamine Maiuri's revolutionary work.

Previous pageNext page

InteractiveDig is produced by ARCHAEOLOGY Magazine
© 2004 Archaeological Institute of America

Home | Archaeology Magazine | More Digs | AIA