Just an archaeologist who lives in Rome. Working for the University of Southampton in collaboration with The British School at Rome conducting archaeological geophysics surveys for research purposes across Italy, Europe and N. Africa. And in my spare time I am writing my Doctoral thesis on a building survey of five contiguous houses in Pompeii.

Buried under a pile of literary pumice. A PhD on Pompeii

Pompeian books. OK there are some less 'academic' titles in there too.

Pompeian books. OK there are some less ‘academic’ titles in there too.
Photo S Hay

I am a field archaeologist (I write this to remind myself more than anyone) and although I find myself sitting at a desk buried under a mass of books, off-prints and scribbled notes (I am very much in the paper archaeology camp when it comes to research) it is only because I spent four years collecting data in the field that I now find myself inside, writing it up as a PhD.

Oh, and that “field” happened to be Pompeii.


Photo S Hay

The site has always resonated with people and no more so than now as the exhibition at the British Museum in London on ‘The Life and Death of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ (to rightly give it it’s full title and not squeeze it down to ‘The Pompeii Exhibition’) has caused a massive resurgence of interest in the Vesuvian cities.

UK television has been awash with programmes detailing the fate of both cities, but in particular, Pompeii. It was nothing short of miraculous that in one documentary you didn’t see the filming of another in the background, so crowded did the site become with Pompeian pundits. Suddenly, experts or not, people had something to say and everyone was listening. It’s a fortuitous time to be studying Pompeii.

I can smugly say I have not jumped on the most recent Pompeian bandwagon. I just jumped on one that was passing in 1997 when I was employed by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, the then director of The British School at Rome, to come and work on his Pompeii Project.

Just looking at a wall - wasn't trusted with context sheets in the early days!

Just looking at a wall – wasn’t trusted with context sheets in the early days!


The project studied the life of an insula – a block of 9 Roman houses half way between the forum and the amphitheatre on the via dell’ Abbondanza. It’s not a particularly pretty block of houses and certainly was not filled with the wealthiest of proprietors but this was the point. The project aimed to explore the non-elite life of Romans in Pompeii. The archaeology of this level of Roman society was much understudied at the outset of our project with the majority of research concentrating on the major public monuments and luxurious private houses and villas. We were looking at the common people. Integrated into the project was a study of all recorded finds from the excavations in the 1950s carried out by Dr. Joanne Berry.

One of my study houses during excavations in the 1950s Photo courtesy of Soprintendenza di Pompeii

One of my study houses during excavations in the 1950s
Photo courtesy of Soprintendenza di Pompeii

My research involved the design and implementation of a system to record standing buildings. This then forms the basis for the chronological analysis of a block of houses with a view to understanding the phases of development of a group of houses through time. Each wall (and they have 2 sides lest you forget) and floor surface was analysed stratigraphically using contexts, all 2585 of them, as you would in stratigraphic excavation. By putting walls and floors together to make rooms, and rooms together to make houses you can complete the jigsaw of the insula to reveal its current form but along the way, witness the changes in property divisions, the redesigning of internal spaces, and even the small repairs to cracks in the walls.

This may sound cold and remote but once you get to the desk stage, you get to see the small neighbourhood as a whole; like peeking into a large living dolls house. You get to see the transformations that the community underwent, the wrangles with neighbours over the heights of adjoining walls, the expansion of the successful drinking establishment, the vulgar scribbled words of a graffito by a cheeky neighbour, the mundane chore of an individual who perhaps grudgingly fixed the leaky pipe, and the general Smith’s keeping up with the Jones’ in terms of decorative fashions. It’s not just looking at walls, bricks and mortar (but I did do that. A lot. And when I say a lot, I mean it) but its about getting to grips with the inhabitants and the people who built the walls in the first place. And second. Well, and third and fourth places if wishing to do any justice at all to my phase plans.


Not paperless Archaeology

Not paperless Archaeology
Photo S Hay

So, I find myself, 16 years later, on Day of Archaeology buried under a pile of literary Pompeian pumice. The field work is complete and I just have to write it up. Simple enough, right? The wealth of Pompeian published texts is overwhelming. The sheer quantity of field notes and scribbled out annotations on plans I have accumulated from years of fieldwork is daunting. And somehow, I am expected to order, make sense of and process all of these things, whilst remaining coherent and retain a clear argument and rationale for my work. Not easy in 33 degrees of heat in Italy. But it’s a fun challenge. And besides, part of me simply believes I am participating in an ancient Roman neighbourhood watch scheme; checking in on each of the houses and their owners to keep tabs on what they are up to. Its just a scheme that happens to last for over 300 years.

Desk-based Day

I am happy to admit that today I am “stuck” in the office at the British School at Rome (BSR) (my presence here  is explained in my post from last year) seated at my desk with a fan gently whirring at my feet.

Desk Based Day

It is about 35 degrees outside and I am enjoying my final few days of cool office time before heading into the field. A field I might add with no shade and the weather prediction is that it is only going to get hotter… am mentally preparing for days of slapping on sun cream factor 50 only to have it trickle into my eyeballs with sweat whilst I am marching up and down in lines conducting a magnetometer survey in Interamna Lirenas, near Monte Cassino, Italy.

I have already had a taste of the heat at Segni, Lazio. Perched on a hilltop, this Roman colony is exceptionally pituresque and has been partially enveloped in the medieval borgo. The circuit of the town is bounded by a wall of polygonal construction and the large stone jigsaw walls are impressive even to this day. Our work as part of a major new project of the BSR in collaboration with the Archaeological Museum and local council of Segni, was to conduct GPR survey in the towns piazza and adjacent to the robust podium of the temple of Juno Moneta on the acropolis. Closing down roads and piazzas is never popular but we were warmly welcomed. The locals were inquisitive and supportive of our work although many remained unconvinced that pushing, seemingly, a pram across tarmac and cobblestones could ever herald the results we were claiming that this simple manoeuvre would bring. They have a point.

But back to my desk, writing up a conference paper with the pit-pat, pit-pat of tennis balls being struck at Wimbledon on the radio in the background. In between rooting through a thesaurus as the heat begins to fry any semblance of a creative vocabulary, there are other things on my to do list for the day. Perhaps the most daunting task I have is the initial stage of securing and organising new projects. Funding, as we archaeologists all know, is rather scant so trying to maintain a steady income to cover our salaries and costs is a nerve-wracking job. Although we run our geophysics programme as a non-profit enterprise we do have real costs and it is always a delicate balance between fixing a price and ensuring that we can do the project to our professional level on the budget in hand. So far, so good this morning. The client is on board and we shall meet next week to discuss the details.

At a set down -it would appear that last year’s Wimbledon champion, Novak Djokovic, is not having such a good day in the office as me.


So, am on way to Pompeii having just avoided hell at Roma Termini station. Tourists have descended and the Italians are ripe for their holidays. Coupled with the fact that there was some incident at the other main line station in Rome I apparently caught the last train headed south for… well who knows how long. All is dealt with in a manner of utter chaos. Welcome to Italy.
From the air conditioned luxury of the fast train to the smell and grime of the local tonker-toy train to Pompei Scavi ( Pompeii Excavations). I spent 4 years living in this area when I worked on the BSR Pompeii Project directed By Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, and I still get a buzz when I return. Being amidst the tones of the Neapolitan dialect fills me with fond memories.
Next, to meet up with Dr Steven Ellis and Dr Eric Poehler who have devised a revolutionary approach to archaeological recording. One that is paperless. Using only iPads on site to record all aspects of excavation and wall recording they are pushing the boundaries of technology, apps, and even the way of thinking of how to record archaeology. But for the moment I am stuck on a platform with the stale stench of urine and cigarette butts.

So made it to Porta Stabia on the south side of Pompeii to meet the lovely Dr Steven Ellis. Not a trace of sweat on his brow despite finding him hard at work backfilling one of their trenches. Do like excavation directors who get their hands dirty. Then met up with the similarly lovely Eric Poehler in the Quadriporticus. His work on the standing building survey really fascinates me as it was what I did in Pompeii but using pencil and paper and incorporated no swish of the finger across an iPad screen. Brilliant discoveries by simply looking at walls always excites me. The simplicity of the technique but one that reveals the complexity of the story.
Obviously cannot divulge the new findings but suffice to say there are some and both PARPS:PS and the PQP team are delighted with their seasons work.
Now in true archaeologists fashion…. A cold beer is much needed.