A Day in Pompeii with Project DECOR

In most circumstances, the practice of excavation is central to the identification and interpretation of archaeological material. Indeed, when many people think of “archaeology,” the first image that comes to mind is the dig site, replete with its traditional imagery: a cascade of shovels and buckets, piles of backfill lining the trenches, and sun-baked excavators working away. While this is certainly an experience with which I am acutely familiar (and one in which I gleefully partake each summer), on a select few archaeological sites, new excavations play only a small role in the overall programme of research. A policy of limiting or halting excavations entirely can be implemented for a variety of reasons, ranging from environmental concerns to financial limitations. These are quite common problems that affect archaeological work in many countries on a regular basis. In some instances, however, a more complex set of issues renders new programmes of excavation difficult to justify. At the very top of the “complex issues” list sits Pompeii, arguably the most famous—and problematic—archaeological site on the planet.

Before progressing any further, it is worth noting that there are, in fact, a handful of excavation projects working at Pompeii every year. Throughout the spring, summer and autumn, teams from various international universities descend on the Bay of Naples to work at locations throughout the city. Most of these projects are relatively small in scale, engaging in “keyhole” excavations below the surface covered by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Active digging in the hitherto unexplored parts of the city, however, ground to a halt in the middle of the 20th century and, by and large, has not resumed (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Map of excavations at Pompeii to 2004 (after Dobbins and Foss 2007, Fig. 3.1)

Unlike most sites (even those regularly visited by thousands of tourists each year), the primary reason for this cessation in activities is the sheer scale of the city itself. Pompeii has been the focus of excavation for the better part of three centuries, and nearly three-quarters of its 66-hectare territory has already been uncovered. While the most spectacular artefacts and pieces of art discovered over the years have been shipped off to museums or storage facilities and are thus generally well-preserved, much of Pompeii’s standing architecture has simply been left open to the elements following excavation. The upshot of this long-term “anti-preservation” policy is not only the loss of priceless wall paintings, mosaics and other decorative elements that remain in situ, but also the collapse of entire structures themselves (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 The Schola Armaturarum (III.3.6), a building thought either to have been used as school to train Pompeii’s children or as a storage room for gladiatorial equipment, was excavated in 1915 by V. Spinazzola (left). It was damaged by a bomb in 1943 and collapsed entirely after a series of heavy rains at the site during the autumn of 2010 (right).

One could argue—without leaning too far into the realm of hyperbole—that the deterioration of Pompeii’s exposed architecture represents one of the greatest cultural losses of the 20th century. The absence of a comprehensive preservation plan, particularly in the years following the culmination of major excavations in the 1950s, is difficult to justify. It was not until the awarding of EU funding in the early 2010s and the subsequent creation of the Grande Progetto Pompei in 2012 that a universal programme of preservation and restoration was initiated. Even so, large parts of the site remain virtually ignored, and collapses in recent years have continued. This long-term destruction of the site has, not surprisingly, proven to be a strong motivator with respect to the suspension of new explorations within the unexcavated quarters of the city, and a (re)focusing on the structures that have already be exposed. Pompeii has always been a crucial source of information for scholars with an interest in Roman art and architecture, and specialist studies of the extant remains have been a major research focus since the early decades of the 19th century. Today, this process continues, and much of the work done by professional scholars at the site aims to examine and document Pompeii as it appears at present.

I am participating in a project doing precisely this type of research. Funded by a European Research Council Horizon 2020 grant and hosted by Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Project DECOR seeks to provide a comprehensive analysis of the decorative principles employed in Roman Italy between the late Republic and the early Imperial period (roughly 2nd c. BC through 1st c. AD). It is the first research programme to move away from analyses of single decorative elements in isolation, focusing instead upon the correlation and interaction between various types of media. This approach is being applied to a wide range of spatial contexts, including houses, sanctuaries and streets.

The project is divided into 5 work-packages, each of which is helmed by a different member of the DECOR team. I am responsible for the oversight of WP-5 Main streets as decoratively designed functional spaces, which explores the design of Roman streets from an aesthetic perspective. Rather than concentrating on a singular aspect of the ancient streetscape (e.g. positioning of fountains, location of crossroads shrines or content of streetside frescos), my research examines the roadbed, sidewalks and flanking buildings in their totality, linking decorative and iconographic themes identified on facades with the actions and activities of the street. Given the subject matter and temporal scope, Pompeii naturally serves as one of the primary loci of archaeological source material for the project. There are, of course, very few sites that in which the entirety of the streets and their facades are so well preserved!

Fig. 3 A (not entirely accurate) depiction of a Roman street

Working days for a project of this type come in two forms: off-site (the majority of the calendar year) and on-site (generally 6-8 weeks a year). When I am working in my office at CAU Kiel, most of my day is spent placing entries into a database that I use to manage the material evidence under consideration. The database is built to function both geographically and thematically. So, for example, if I want to examine a particular section of the street network, let’s say the Via di Nola between blocks V.3 and IX.9 (Fig. 4), I can pull up all of the architectural, artefactual and decorative material recorded along this stretch of street. Each category and sub-category of material evidence is also linked to a GIS (Geographic Information System), so that it is possible to explore the results cartographically.

Fig. 4 Via di Nola between blocks V.3 and IX.9, view from east

Because Pompeii was excavated over the course of multiple centuries, much of my off-site work involves sifting through old excavation reports, photographs and other documentation in an attempt to reconstruct elements of the ancient streetscape that are no longer visible today. The dramatic deterioration of the site described in the paragraphs above means that while more robust architectural features often remain in situ (e.g. fountains, sculpted wall plaques, etc.), painted decoration has disappeared entirely. There are many instances in which a wall painting is described in a giornale di scavo soon after excavation, and yet no trace of it remains today. In these cases, the aim is to track down any other evidence of the image that might exist, such as watercolour reproductions, photographs or other textual descriptions. The hope is that via these detailed fact-finding missions it will be possible to determine exactly what the painting depicted and where it was located.

Days spent working on-site are, it must be said, far more interesting. A typical day might look like this:
Following a breakfast consisting of a cappuccino and a bombolone (a spherical chocolate- or cream-filled pastry), I enter the site just after 8 AM. The morning is spent recording the masonry styles employed in the construction of facades along a particular block of houses, in an effort to trace the chronological development of the structures. This is done so that it will eventually be possible to analyse the decorative elements associated with each type of masonry diachronically. After lunch in a local bar (pizza and gelato is always a good combo), the afternoon is used to record the precise geographical position of a series of wall paintings and inscriptions located along the Vicolo del Lupanare, a street that winds through the centre of the city. Around 6:30 PM, I return to my lodging to update the database and the GIS with the results of the days’ research, accompanied by a Peroni. The latter is, in my opinion, a mandatory feature of any Pompeianist’s early evening. After a light dinner, the day ends with a bit more reading and research.

Fig. 5 Un bombolone alla crema (left) and a bottle of Peroni (right). Culinary concerns rival the archaeological when working in southern Italy.

As is hopefully clear from the description above, there is considerable overlap between the analytical skills and techniques employed during my on-site visits to Pompeii and those used during the process of excavation. Whether I am holding a pen and notebook or a shovel and bucket, analysing temporal phases, recording geographical positioning, and organising data within a relational database are the activities in which I am typically engaged. While I do hope that someday I will have the chance to “dig Pompeii,” for the moment, my colleagues in Project DECOR and I are quite content to assist in the production of a more thorough record of the standing remains. And that’s because the problems that have plagued the site for hundreds of years are simply not going to go away. Though great strides have been made to preserve certain of Pompeii’s most important buildings, the majority of the city remains entirely unprotected from the elements and thus will continue to deteriorate. While some of the smaller-scale excavations continue to reveal spectacular finds (just last week, a new funerary inscription was discovered outside the Stabian Gate), preserving and recording what we have now is perhaps the greatest gift that we can give to future generations.

Dr. Taylor Lauritsen│lauritsen@klassarch.uni-kiel.de