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The age of spectacular finds at Pompeii is far from over

29 January 2019

Pompeii has been much in the news of late, with a stream of impressive finds making headlines around the world. An unfortunate individual crushed by a falling block of stone, while clutching a purse containing what might have been his life savings; the remains of a horse still in its harness; graffiti and frescoes whose amazingly fresh colours had lain unseen for nearly two millennia: all have come to light in the last year or so.

Outside the town itself, an impressive monumental tomb was uncovered near the Stabian Gate. The deceased occupant, possibly the local politician Cnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius, who died some time in the decade before the eruption in 79 AD, is commemorated in a very long and detailed inscription. Preliminary studies of this astonishing text reveal important new information. We learn, for example, that the emperor Nero had exiled the local magistrates who were in charge during the infamous amphitheatre riot of 59 AD, and there are insights into the sheer scale of largesse that politicians like the tomb’s occupant put on in search of favour: a gladiatorial show with no fewer than 416 combatants, and a public banquet for ‘456 three-sided couches so that upon each couch 15 persons reclined’ (if we assume that those 6,840 diners were the adult male citizens of Pompeii, we can for the first time arrive at an estimate of the town’s total population – around 30,000 – based on an ancient source, rather than on the physical size of the site).

The inscription on the tomb uncovered near the Stabian Gate.

The inscription on the tomb uncovered near the Stabian Gate. Courtesy Parco archeologico di Pompei

Why has so much been discovered lately? Until the last few years, the age of spectacular finds at Pompeii seemed to be over. When the site was first discovered in the 18th century it was more or less looted for art treasures (indeed, there is some evidence that ancient treasure hunters were active not long after the eruption). The beginnings of archaeology as a modern discipline site saw rapid large-scale excavations in the 19th and early 20th centuries, clearing whole streets and city blocks. These digs uncovered many of the town’s best known buildings, but were conducted to standards far from today’s slow and painstaking scientific excavations. In the mid and late 20th century the pace of exploration slowed; about a third of the ancient town has never been excavated. Attention increasingly turned to intensive excavations of smaller areas, and to the conservation of what had been exposed, an ever-greater challenge under the growing weight of visitor numbers.

The recent stream of stories about major new finds is a result of the Great Pompeii Project. This was instituted in 2012 in response to a series of problems in the preservation and management of Pompeii. Poor restoration, inadequate site management, chronic neglect, and local corruption meant that more and more of the site was at risk and out of bounds to visitors. In 2010 the well publicised and highly embarrassing collapse of the ‘House of the Gladiators’ focused international attention on the site. This led to major injections of cash from the EU and the Italian government, and the appointment of a dynamic new superintendent, Massimo Osanna, at the head of a large and multidisciplinary archaeological team.

The skeleton of a man crushed by a block of stone, discovered during excavations of Regio V.

The skeleton of a man crushed by a block of stone, discovered during excavations of Regio V. Courtesy Parco archeologico di Pompei

Much of the project’s work necessarily focuses on restoration and consolidation – reopening numerous closed houses, and the site antiquarium; investing in drainage works and making good earlier repairs; ensuring disabled access; protecting frescoes and masonry exposed to the elements and to the site’s ever more numerous visitors. The monumental tomb mentioned above, for example, was found during restoration works on a 19th-century building outside the edge of the town; the harnessed horse was in the stable of a suburban villa where intervention was needed to counter the effect of looters’ tunnelling.

Alongside these essential repairs, though, Osanna’s team has also been re-excavating part of Regio V, an area on the northern side of Pompeii, with the use of the latest techniques leading to the recent stream of exciting finds. These have brought welcome positive publicity to the site and the project and have, as above, started to produce useful new information about life in the town. Though the balance between consolidating what has already been exposed and digging up new remains is a delicate one, Osanna’s aim of establishing Pompeii as a global leader in modern archaeology, rather than a national embarrassment, seems to be well on the way to succeeding.

Matthew Nicholls is the senior tutor at St John’s College, Oxford and professor of Classics at the University of Reading.

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