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The city of Pompeii is historically famous for one reason: it was destroyed completely by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. While during the time of the Roman Empire, it had been a prosperous city, in no way was it as famous as it is now. It is shown that “‘Pompeii as an archaeological site is the longest continually excavated site in the world'”. The excavation of Pompeii has both immortalized Roman life, while destroying what was preserved by the ash of Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii allows us to look into Roman life and architecture like never before, but the site as a whole is also in danger.
In 79 AD the eruption began on August 24. The Pompeians did not feel the need to evacuate, and did not feel threatened at all. The city was covered in ash and pumice, burying them. They city’s name eventually faded from maps and its prosperity forgotten. It was not viewed as an archeological site until the 19th century when Giuseppe Fiorelli began excavating the site. Now the site is in danger of being destroyed due to the elements and lack of preservation.
Pompeii is a spectacular site for one major reason: the lava, ash and pumice encased the entire city and solidified, preserving it for over 1000 years. Though a great archaeological find, it now suffers. The threat of destruction has always accompanied Pompeii. In the first archaeological stages, when Fiorelli was excavating, the site was poorly guarded and was looted frequently. Charles III removed artifacts to embellish his own home. Others attempted to preserve frescoes and paintings by covering them in varnish. The lack of proper preservation first came to the public eye when the Schola Armaturarum collapsed due to water damage in 2010. The Armaturarum was a gladiator training arena and a very popular building in Pompeii. After the collapse, the obvious need for attendance on the site was noted. Walls had begun to collapse, and the vegetation was overgrown. The areas in need of restoration are the areas that the public and tourists do not see. As Ray Laurence notes, “Even for those scholars interested in art and architecture, Pompeii presents problems. In those areas away from the most visited parts of the site, vegetation often obscures the object of study. This can cause areas of the site to be neglected and not examined. The general deterioration of the archaeological remains should not be underestimated.” The site is very large, over 44 hectares of land, but has a reduced staff. They cannot keep up with the size of the site, or prevent rain from damaging the artifacts. Though the damage has caught the eye of UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) and received funding for restoration of the site, it had lost some important parts of Pompeii. While Pompeii offers the public and scientists a view into the past, its study also is destroying the preserved ruins.
In archaeology, they often must damage something in order to study it. As Gary Devore of Stamford University says in James Owens’ article: “Since archaeology is destruction, we destroy bits of Pompeii as we go along.” At Pompeii, the large sites that were excavated were also damaged by the constant work being done. In Pompeii, many of the people who had lived there were frozen in time by the volcanic debris. To get a full idea of how these people had died, a plaster molding was used. Ian Andrews states: “Archaeologists working on the ruins of Pompeii have discovered an ingenious way of ‘reconstructing’ some of their finds. When lava from the eruption of AD 79 cooled, it solidified around all the objects which had been unable to escape. Over the centuries, many of these objects decayed, leaving hollows in the solid lava. Archaeologists refill these with liquid plaster; liquid plaster is allowed to set and the lava can then be chipped away leaving an accurate cast of whatever was trapped by the lava flow nearly two thousand years ago.” This process is helpful with the study of the site; it also is destroying the naturally solidified encasing of the object. Once they chip away the lava, that figure is eliminated forever, leaving a plaster fill instead. The original case is now gone; yet another piece of history we must destroy to discover answers.
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The final threat that Pompeii is faced with, along with the surrounding area, is another eruption from Mount Vesuvius. Scientists studying the volcano believe that another eruption could destroy even more than it did in 79 AD. Such an important site should be restored and under constant attention. Pompeii’s impact on our society is slightly larger than the average person knows.
The discovery of Pompeii offers something that no other site can offer. It gives us an idea of Roman everyday life. Pompeians died in a state of panic, but that does not change the fact that every object in the entire city is found where the owner last left it before trying to escape the clutches of Mount Vesuvius. This is a spectacular way to study Roman lifestyle, and to discover things no one had known. It is said by Judith Harris that: “Until Pompeii, no one knew how the ancient Romans actually lived.” What archaeologists now look at in Pompeii is details within homes to see how families actually functioned. Before the discovery of Pompeii, it was thought that slaves would not have liked to be seen by the home owners and guests. This was proven incorrect when they discovered that some commonly used items of slaves were found in the main room. When looking at ancient Roman medical relations, Pompeii has shown that medical tools have been found in households, so rather than summoning a doctor they would do some medical procedures by themselves. Many of the villas in Pompeii belonged to the rich emperors and senators. They were holiday homes that they would visit throughout the year. This is most of what tourists see. Owens found that “much research has centered on public buildings and breathtaking villas that portray the artistic and opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the city’s wealthy elite”, but now, they have begun to look at the “other 98 percent” of Pompeii that teach us about their everyday lives. In this part of Pompeii jobs were in trade, education, agriculture, accounting, and industry. A major part of Pompeii’s prosperity is due to the proximity of the sea and the bustling ports. Puteoli and the Bay of Naples brought in extreme revenue and unlike Pompeii and Herculaneum were able to recover after the eruption of Vesuvius. The artwork of Pompeii included frescoes. Frescoes allowed people to express themselves and also show what the ancient Pompeians would have looked like. There was “graffiti” in Pompeii. This graffiti was usually written in a public place and voiced cheery or somber messages. The study of such a bustling and enriched city is a reflection of Rome in its “Golden Age”. Peter Kesteven reflected, “The citizens of Pompeii have their strengths and their weaknesses, just as we have. The Romans said that the life of a Roman town was the life of the empire in miniature. In studying Pompeii we can see the unity and method that led to success but perhaps we can see something also of the weakness that eventually led to the decline of the empire.” Pompeii reflects the empire as a whole; it also immortalizes the life of the citizens of Rome.
Pompeii not only shows us the lifestyle of Romans in ancient times, but it also influenced art, architecture and literature after its excavation began in 1748. Its excavation also began to influence archaeological advancements. It influenced wealthy folks across Europe because of the dawn of classicism. Elite Europeans would tour the Italian peninsula in search of art and artifacts to decorate their homes. Pompeii was specifically targeted because of the gems and riches found there, as well as the tragic tale behind its destruction. Many aristocratic European homes included an Etruscan room; the design was based off of Pompeian architecture and art. Pompeii’s architecture was influenced by many cultures. Greek Doric columns, Etruscan bronze pottery and Roman temples were all found in Pompeii. Some of the buildings in Pompeii include temples to worship Venus (the city’s god), an amphitheatre, theatre, baths, sport centres, shops and workshops as well as block houses and villas. The architecture is unique: “Only in Pompeii is it possible to trace the history of Italian and Roman domestic architecture for at least four centuries.” Pompeii influenced literature because after the birth of classicism, works like “The Last Days in Pompeii” written by Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton became popular amongst Europeans. Therefore Pompeii’s destruction was unfortunate, but its rediscovery became a part of culture still prevalent today.
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Shelley Hales summarizes the events of Pompeii accurately by stating: “The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE was a most paradoxical event. The cataclysm both destroyed and preserved the relatively insignificant town of Pompeii and transformed its fortunes: as its remains began to be excavated in the mid-eighteenth century, this town assumed centre- stage as a powerful and evocative portal through which one might at least attempt a closer communion with the ancient past.” Archaeologist are doing their best to restore what previous damage had been done in the form of excavations, the threat of another eruption exists, and all the while Pompeii continues to be frozen in time immortalized by the very thing that destroyed it.
Works Cited/ Updated Bibliography
Owens, James. “Ancient Roman Life Preserved at Pompeii — National Geographic.” Science and Space Facts, Science and Space, Human Body, Health, Earth, Human Disease – National Geographic. http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/archaeology/pompeii/ (accessed November 29, 2012).
Valsecchi, Maria Cristina. “Pompeii Is Crumbling-Can It Be Saved?.” Daily Nature and Science News and Headlines | National Geographic News . http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/travelnews/2011/11/111107-pompeii-italy-science-travel-collapse-eu/ (accessed January 10, 2013).
“Pompeii Information.” CyArk. http://archive.cyark.org/pompeii-info (accessed January 10, 2013).
Laurence, Ray. Roman Pompeii: space and society. London: Routledge, 1994
University of Leicestor. “Everyday Life In Pompeii Revealed.” Science Daily: News & Articles in Science, Health, Environment & Technology. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/04/070424091412.htm (accessed January 15, 2013).
Harris, Judith. Pompeii awakened a story of rediscovery. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.
Andrews, Ian, Peter Kesteven, and Reginald Piggott. Pompeii. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1980.
Stewart, Doug. “Resurrecting Pompeii | History & Archaeology | Smithsonian Magazine.” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian Magazine. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/pompeii.html?c=y&page=5 (accessed January 19, 2013).
Hales, Shelley. Pompeii in the Public Imagination from its Rediscovery to Today. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
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