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Bringing the Ghostly City of Pompeii Back to Life

Pompeii has been a byword for catastrophe for almost 2,000 years. Today this place of chronic disasters is being transformed into an archaeological showcase.  

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An eruption of Mount Vesuvius (background) in A.D. 79 buried the ancient Roman city of Pompeii under volcanic ash and rock. The World Heritage site is now the scene of an ambitious restoration project.


For the first time in 19 centuries, a breath of life is wafting through the ghostly streets of Pompeii. Under the guidance of a dozen architects, squads of construction workers dig and drill in its ruins, shoring up eroded facades and installing drainage pipes. Engineers and biologists convene over morning coffee, sharing notes and posing questions.

An unlikely rebirth is taking shape here, a new era for a city whose sudden burial in volcanic ash two millennia ago left behind a unique but fragile record of everyday business in the ancient world.

The aim, says Professor Massimo Osanna, the visionary Italian archaeologist who oversees Pompeii, is to construct a portrait of Roman Italy so detailed, graphic, and multi-faceted that “it’s as though we have taken close-up photographs of a society 2,000 years ago.”

What is emerging from mountains of data is a remarkable mirror of our own times. Pompeii in the first century was a community of multicultural neighborhoods speaking a babel of languages, lunching in fast-food restaurants, and indulging at home on costly imported delicacies.

Pompeii: Secrets of a Dead City

August 2, 2016 - The ancient Roman town of Pompeii is one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites, and its exquisite villas, buried by volcanic ash in A.D. 79, have been the subject of study since the 18th century. Now, modern imaging and chemical analysis of human remains found at the site are adding depth to the picture of how Pompeii’s inhabitants lived.

A LEGACY OF DISASTERS

Pompeii has been a byword for catastrophe since 79 A.D., when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted, killing most of the city’s inhabitants. After serious excavations began halfway through the 19th century, this storied city on the Bay of Naples was rocked by four major earthquakes and an endless succession of man-made disasters.

Allied bombings in 1943 shattered important buildings. Shoddy peacetime “restorations” by organized crime-controlled building firms did more damage than the bombs. Staff and budget cutbacks during two world wars and four economic crashes, most recently the worldwide financial meltdown of 2008, left much of Pompeii crumbling and dangerous. Feral dogs haunted its courtyards. Incessant flooding ate away at its foundations.

By the end of 2010, when the famous “House of the Gladiators” suddenly toppled, only 13 percent of the site’s 110 visible acres remained accessible to visitors. (Another 54 acres have never been uncovered.) The number of buildings open to the public had been reduced to ten, down from 64 in 1956.

Earlier this year Italy’s elite cultural protection squad launched a surprise police raid on a warehouse in Geneva, Switzerland, that recovered fragments of unique Pompeii frescoes. They had been chipped off walls in the minimally protected restricted zone, probably in the 1990s.

“Pompeii faced acute crisis on every level—critical problems to be resolved in the site’s structures, in maintaining its art and artifacts, and in conserving the remains of its victims,” says Osanna, who was appointed Superintendent of Excavations two years ago. “Nothing less than a total restructuring and reorganization could turn things around.”

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Centuries of neglect and abuse left Pompeii crumbling and dangerous. By the end of 2010 only 10 buildings were open to the public, down from 64 in 1956.


The gravity of the crisis finally shook the cultural bureaucracy into action. In 2012 the site’s authorities received an emergency grant of 75 million euros (then worth nearly $100 million) from the European Union, and another 30 million euros ($40 million) from the Italian government.

Put simply, Pompeii was too seductive to be abandoned. Despite centuries of neglect and abuse, it is still the fifth most visited ancient site on Earth, drawing 3 million people per year, exceeded only by the Great Wall and Xian’s terracotta army in China, and the Coliseum and Forum in Rome.

THE GREAT POMPEII PROJECT

Osanna and his colleagues now preside over one of the most ambitious archaeological enterprises in history. Formally known as the Great Pompeii Project, its goal is the transformation of a chronic disaster into a peerless showcase by 2017. It is to be a state-of-the-art laboratory for what Osanna calls “global archaeology,” an approach that marshals a vast interdisciplinary arsenal of scientific, scholarly, and practical skills in the study of ancient sites.

More than 200 experts and technicians are at work in Pompeii’s ruins. In addition to 12 architects and 12 archaeologists, the team includes bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, painters, carpenters, photographers, dentists, radiologists, biologists, geologists, mapping technicians, computer scientists, and experts in art restoration. There are also medical engineers skilled in the use of advanced diagnostic equipment, and hydro-engineers to stave off the flooding.

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Researchers use a CT scanner to examine the bones and teeth of a Vesuvian victim, whose body was encased in solidified ash.


Anthropologists are composing precise genetic profiles of victims. Paleobotanists are studying 2,000-year old remnants of food for clues on Pompeian dining preferences. Demographers are collating medical findings with a wide variety of other data, assembling a de facto census of the vanished community.

The project’s headline innovation has been the use of computerized axial tomography, popularly known as CAT scans, which employ radio waves and magnetic fields to generate detailed internal images of the body.

The procedure builds on earlier pioneering work by Giuseppe Fiorelli, Osanna’s most illustrious predecessor as superintendent (1863-1875), who injected high-quality plaster into the blocks of solidified ash that encased Pompeii’s dead, yielding evocative casts of their corpses. Some 86 of these casts and their human contents, a representative sample of the city’s population, are undergoing painstaking restoration and analyses, based on DNA samples and three-dimensional laser scans as well as tomography.

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The CT scanner reveals the skeletal remains of a child discovered next to an adult male and female, presumed to be his parents.


Like many of the project’s medical professionals, chief radiologist Giovanni Babino was surprised at his emotional response to the encounter with Pompeii’s dead. “I must say that I developed something close to a human relationship with these plaster images, sensations quite similar to those a physician experiences with actual patients.”

Teeth are the most resistant elements in the human organism, with qualities specific to each individual. Did the Pompeii deceased include musicians who played wind instruments? Were there carpenters, who clamped their jaws around nails before positioning them? The teeth will tell, say the project’s dental researchers, led by Dr. Elisa Vanacore of Salerno’s University Hospital. They can also help identify victims’ gender and age, suggest the region where they were born, and provide clues to their socio-economic class.

FORESHADOWING THE 21ST CENTURY

An extraordinary portrait is taking shape, combining new discoveries and confirming evidence for once-speculative theories. Although the data analysis is in the early stages, it is already opening a window on life at the peak of the Roman Empire that startlingly resembles our own in the 21st century.

Among the most striking of the volcano’s casualties, preserved for the ages in one of Fiorelli’s first casts, is an unusually tall man, “much larger than we assume Romans of that time would have been, and dressed in rather strange clothing,” says Osanna. The folds and texture of his garments, like his skeleton and the imprint of his body, were preserved in the ash. “Over the years, people have wondered if he might have been a slave from the northern provinces of the empire. A Celt from Gaul, perhaps.”

It is now believed that this man was a typical resident of first-century Pompeii, which may have rivalled today’s London or New York in its ethnic diversity.

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The European Union and Italian government have provided more than 100 million euros to fund the restoration of Pompeii’s ruins.


“When we cross the data we’ve collected from multiple sources, we find that Pompeii was a very dynamic society,” says Osanna. “Lists of the inhabitants’ names have been found, and many are recognizably those of ‘liberti.’”

The term alludes to freed slaves and their progeny with origins across the far-flung reaches of Roman conquest: Greece, North Africa, the Anatolian Plateau, Celtic Gaul. Pompeii was an affluent community of Roman citizens, naturalized foreigners and freedmen who had become makers and shakers in imperial trade.

Many of them observed a diet that might have been prescribed by a California nutritionist and marketed by Whole Foods. Its staples were whole grains, including several varieties of wheat, oats, and barley, accompanied by chickpeas, fruits, and nuts, and accented with costly imported spices and delicacies such as Egyptian lentils and dates from the Arabian Peninsula. “These are signs of a very commercial culture,” notes Osanna, with a food chain stretched over one of history’s most immense empires.

Yet residents of Pompeii also favored a more pedestrian culinary institution, notes historian Mattia Buondonno, who has been conducting expert tours of the ruins for four decades. “Every district had shops like these, called ‘thermopolia,’ where the locals had lunch,” he explained.

He leads the way through a small dining area with a stone counter outfitted with sunken terracotta vessels that once held pre-cooked meals. “Welcome to an ancient Pompeiian fast-food outlet,” he says.

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