Pompeii Travel Blog› entry 8 of 19 › view all entries
July 1st, 2004 – by: mellemel8
It, along with Herculaneum (its sister city), was destroyed, and completely buried, during a catastrophic eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius spanning two days on 24 August 79 AD.
The volcano collapsed higher roof-lines and buried Pompeii under many meters of ash and pumice, and it was lost for nearly 1700 years before its accidental rediscovery in 1748. Since then, its excavation has provided an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of a city at the height of the Roman Empire.
The archaeological digs at the site extend to the street level of the 79 AD volcanic event; deeper digs in older parts of Pompeii and core samples of nearby drillings have exposed layers of jumbled sediment that suggest that the city had suffered from the volcano and other seismic events before then. Three sheets of sediment have been found on top of the lava bedrock that lies below the city and, mixed in with the sediment, archaeologists have found bits of animal bone, pottery shards and plants. Using carbon dating, the oldest layer has been dated to the 8th-6th centuries BC, about the time that the city was founded. The other two layers are separated from the other layers by well-developed soil layers or Roman pavement and were laid in the 4th century BC and 2nd century BC.
The town was founded around the 7th-6th century BC by the Osci or Oscans, a people of central Italy, on what was an important crossroad between Cumae, Nola and Stabiae. It had already been used as a safe port by Greek and Phoenician sailors. According to Strabo, Pompeii was also captured by the Etruscans, and in fact recent excavations have shown the presence of Etruscan inscriptions and a 6th century necropolis. Pompeii was captured a first time by the Greek colony of Cumae, allied with Syracuse, between 525 and 474 BC.
In the 5th century BC, the Samnites conquered it (and all the other towns of Campania); the new rulers imposed their architecture and enlarged the town.
Pompeii took part in the war that the towns of Campania initiated against Rome, but in 89 BC it was besieged by Sulla. Although the troops of the Social League, headed by Lucius Cluentius, helped in resisting the Romans, in 80 BC Pompeii was forced to surrender after the conquest of Nola. It became a Roman colony with the name of Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum. The town became an important passage for goods that arrived by sea and had to be sent toward Rome or Southern Italy along the nearby Appian Way.
It was fed with water by a spur from Aqua Augusta (Naples) built circa 20 BC by Agrippa, the main line supplying several other large towns, and finally the naval base at Misenum. The castellum in Pompeii is well preserved, and includes many interesting details of the distribution network and its controls.
A computer-generated depiction of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 which buried Pompeii (from BBC's Pompeii: The Last Day). The depiction of the Temple of Jupiter, facing the forum, and the Temple of Apollo, across the portico to the left, are nonetheless inaccurate, and the shown state of the porticoes around the forum is also at least questionable, as they all appear intact during this recreation of the 79 eruption; it is widely known that at least the Temples of Jupiter and Apollo had been destroyed 17 years before, during the 62 earthquake, and that they had not been rebuilt by the time the city was finally destroyed in the 79 eruption
A computer-generated depiction of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 which buried Pompeii (from BBC's Pompeii: The Last Day).
By the 1st century, Pompeii was one of a number of towns located around the base of Mount Vesuvius. The area had a substantial population which grew prosperous from the region's renowned agricultural fertility. Many of Pompeii's neighbouring communities, most famously Herculaneum, also suffered damage or destruction during the 79 eruption.
The people and buildings of Pompeii were covered in up to twelve different layers of soil. Pliny the Younger provides a first-hand account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius from his position across the Bay of Naples at Misenum, in a version which was written 25 years after the event. The experience must have been etched on his memory given the trauma of the occasion, and the loss of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, with whom he had a close relationship. His uncle lost his life while attempting to rescue stranded victims. As Admiral of the fleet, he had ordered the ships of the Imperial Navy stationed at Misenum to cross the bay to assist evacuation attempts. Volcanologists have recognised the importance of Pliny the Younger's account of the eruption by calling similar events "Plinian".
After thick layers of ash covered the two towns, they were abandoned and eventually their names and locations were forgotten. Then Herculaneum was rediscovered in 1738 by workmen working on the foundation of a summer palace for the King of Naples, Charles of Bourbon, and Pompeii in 1748. These towns have since been excavated to reveal many intact buildings and wall paintings. The towns were actually found in 1599 by Domenico Fontana, who was digging a new course for the river Sarno, but it took more than 150 years before a serious campaign was started to unearth them. Charles III took great interest in the findings even after becoming king of Spain.
Karl Weber directed the first real excavations; he was followed in 1764 by military engineer Franscisco la Vega.
Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the excavations in 1860. During early excavations of the site, occasional voids in the ash layer had been found that contained human remains. It was Fiorelli who realised these were spaces left by the decomposed bodies and so devised the technique of injecting plaster into them to perfectly recreate the forms of Vesuvius's victims. What resulted were highly accurate and eerie forms of the doomed Pompeiani who failed to escape, in their last moment of life, with the expression of terror often quite clearly visible. This technique is still in use today, with resin now used instead of plaster because it is more durable.
Some have theorized that Fontana found some of the famous erotic frescoes and, due to the strict modesty prevalent during his time, reburied them in an attempt at archaeological censorship. This view is bolstered by reports of later excavators who felt that sites they were working on had already been visited and reburied. A detailed discussion of the erotic art of Pompeii, with pictures, can be found in a separate article.
A large number of artifacts come from Pompeii are preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.
Pompeii has become a popular tourist destination for centuries (it was on the Grand Tour); with approximately 2.5 million visitors a year, it is the most popular tourist attraction in Italy. It is now part of a larger Vesuvius National Park and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.
Pompeii is also a driving force behind the economy of the nearby town of Pompei. Many residents are employed in the tourism and hospitality business, serving as taxi or bus drivers, waiters or hotel operators. The ruins can be reached by simply walking from the modern town to the various entrances, there are adequate car parks and the entrances are also accessible to tourists through the train line to the modern town, or else a private train line, the Circumvesuviana, that runs directly to the ancient site.
Excavations in the site have generally ceased due to the moratorium imposed by the superintendent of the site, Professor Pietro Giovanni Guzzo. Additionally, the site is generally less accessible to tourists, with less than a third of all buildings open in the 1960s being available for public viewing today. Nevertheless, the sections of the ancient city open to the public are extensive, and tourists can spend many days exploring the whole site.
Issues of conservation
When Pompeii was buried under the ash and rubble of Mount Vesuvius, the objects buried beneath it were remarkably well-preserved for almost two thousand years. The lack of air and moisture allowed for the objects to remain underground with little to no deterioration, which meant that, once excavated, the site had a wealth of sources and evidence for analysis, giving remarkable detail into the lives of the Pompeiians.
Weathering, erosion, light exposure, water damage, poor methods of excavation and reconstruction, introduced plants and animals, tourism, vandalism and theft have all damaged the site in some way. Two-thirds of the city has been excavated, but the remnants of the city are rapidly deteriorating. The concern for conservation has continually troubled archaeologists. Today, funding is mostly directed into conservation of the site; however, due to the expanse of Pompeii and the scale of the problems, this is inadequate in halting the slow decay of the materials. An estimated US$335 million is needed for all necessary work on Pompeii.
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