Monday, 5 July 2010

Ashes to ashes: neglect takes its toll on Pompeii's Roman ruins

This article was in The Independent on Saturday: Ashes to ashes: neglect takes its toll on Pompeii's Roman ruins. I am really annoyed by it. Yes, yes, we all know that Pompeii is decaying and that there are too many tourists. Yes, there are problems with the administration and bureaucracy at the site, and many of us are worried about recent developments there. But there are many extremely competent people who work in the Soprintendenza, and they do their best with the resources that they have. And they love the site. It is insulting to suggest that there have been 'decades of apathy and incompetence'. Anyone who works at Pompeii regularly knows that restoration and conservation is going on all the time. Just look at the photos that Rick Bauer posted last week for a few examples of this. Lack of resources is a problem, but don't start claiming that there is a lack of will. And don't say that there has been no good leadership since Mauiri. Maiuri was great, yes. He was serious about conservation, and knew how to excavate, and he published his work. But he is also part of the problem, because he dug up so much of the site. Indeed, I would argue that the best thing that happened when Maiuri retired in 1962 was the decision to STOP large-scale excavations at Pompeii and concentrate on conservation.

So let's cut the current authorities a bit of slack (and I'm not talking about the commissario, but the people who work at the site every day). It is not their fault that they face an enormous and continuous task with limited resources. It is easy for us to complain and criticise, a knee-jerk reaction when we see the state of the remains. But let's not accuse anyone of apathy, because that is not the case.


Miko Flohr said...

The most remarkable thing about this article is that it states that tourists are the big problem and then gives all the travel information tourists need to get there.
For the rest, the tone and content are similar to some of the Italian articles that appeared when Berlusconi declared 'Emergency' two years ago - it is almost as if the Independent are two years behind. And even two years ago, I personally felt things already had begun improving, e.g. through the removal of ivy and vegetation in large parts of region VII, and large-scale reconstruction works in parts of region I and IX.
However, while I do think that all people involved in the site work very hard and that the situation would have been much worse if they hadn't been doing their good work, I also feel that conservation is too much in the hands of too few people, and that the international archaeological community is too much sidelined in that process. Sometimes, decisions are taken that, from an archaeological point of view just don't make sense, and in my own fieldwork we have been confronted with the debris of reconstruction activities actually spread over areas that were thought of as less worth preserving (in my case, e.g., the fulling workshop in VI 16, 3.4 next to the Casa degli Amorini Dorati, where an ancient basin was used to dump concrete). Most people doing this reconstruction work actually don't seem to have had any archaeological training at all, they are just construction workers from the south. That is a problem, and I don't know whether that is a financial or an organizational problem, but I think, actually, both. That is also something the archaeological community might perhaps consider to start to do something about themselves.

Jo Berry said...

You make an excellent point about conservation at Pompeii, I think. There are highly trained conservators around, but work also gets contracted out to private companies (I am thinking, for example, about the restorations in Region I in the 1990s). These guys are professional builders, and they have consultant archaeologists, but even so ... I think this is all about tradition. Pompeii has been an important employer in the region, it plays a crucial role in the local economy. Local workmen become jacks-of-all-trades in the excavations. Bringing in outside conservators means that locals lose their jobs. But you are also right that the archaeological community should start taking more responsibility for conservation. We can't leave it all to the SAP and then complain about it.

This is a really interesting problem, and I would be very interested to hear what others think, too.

Massimo Betello said...

I think that each of us can do something for sure, small things maybe, but they can actually do much good: everytime I have been studying a house in Pompeii, I have left the place better than I have found it. I collect the garbage, cut the grass and bushes (only where it is safe and not doing any damage to the stuctures, of course) and collect the random rocks in the center of each room. The house looks much better and, I think, it gives the idea that we care about Pompeii, and we do not consider it only a place to exploit for our "personal" research interest.

Francesca Tronchin said...

Massimo, I wish I could restore the impluvium fountain in the Casa di Octavius Quartio--a fountain that was already restored in 1990, but the marble revetment is now being held on to the base with a piece of twine!

I would also encourage all of you--especially Jo--to comment on the article on the Independent website. That will be how word of this alternative viewpoint reaches the general public--and not just other Pompeianists.

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