Sunday, 14 November 2010

Dealing with decay

So the House of the Gladiators has collapsed, and I am an archaeologist working at Pompeii, what does it - professionally - mean to me? After a week of reading about the collapse, looking at the pictures, and discussing it with several people, I spent some time last Friday afternoon to organize my thoughts and writing them down. It resulted in a kind of 'working paper' that I put up on my website. I thought it might be interesting for the Blogging Pompeii community as well. A PDF is available here.
Basically, my perhaps at points slightly provocative argument is that the inevitable (and unstoppable) phenomenon of decay at sites like Pompeii has implications for the way we prioritize our research agenda, and I basically feel that we need to partially stop doing certain things, and start doing certain other things before the data gets lost. Not all of you will necessarily agree with all that I am saying, and, actually, my personal ideas are developing rapidly at this very moment, so I am open to any good arguments, but after all, the key issue is this: it is an problem that - I feel - deserves more open, explicit discussion within the scholarly community, and this seems like the best place to start. We all have our ideas, lets see where we agree and disagree, and how that can help us making sensible decisions.


Rob Brown said...

Miko, the toughest decisions are always the most important. I think your article is thought provoking.
As a teacher, teaching a unit that includes the conservation and preservation of the Vesuvian sites I think your thoughts will provoke much discussion and soul searching.

Thanks for posting them.

Sarah Court said...

Thanks to Miko for starting this discussion - there are so many issues to think about and consider what role archaeologists are/should be playing at sites like Pompeii. We are both responsible for contributing to the decay, as well as having enormous passion for saving archaeology.
"Dealing with decay" would make a great conference for Vesuvian archaeologists - particularly because all too often conservation issues are treated as a separate sector and not embraced by archaeologists.
The Herculaneum Centre would be more than happy to host an event should it prove of interest...?

Miko Flohr said...

I think it would make an absolutely great conference, we should think of doing this. Perhaps even better would be to do this as a session at AIA/APA or one of the other yearly conferences where there are more people from outside the vesuvian area for whom this may be of equal interest.

Jo Berry said...

I've been chewing this over all morning. There is an awful lot that I agree with, and also I like very much the idea of getting together to discuss the issues (in whatever context, and perhaps in conjunction with Eric's ideas for a Schola post mortem?). But I'm also wondering about the practicalities of funding projects that are not fundamentally excavations. What I mean is this - so much funding goes to projects that seem glamorous, i.e. excavations. So, this would mean that changes would be needed not just among archaeologists but also among funding bodies (and in Britain funding is also connected to the need to teach archaeology students how to dig). In a sense, we as archaeologists are only part of the problem, and what is needed is a much broader change of attitude. I'm including the general public and the media here too. But perhaps after all the media coverage of last week's collapse these changes of attitude will now start to happen ...

Miko Flohr said...

Yes, that is precisely one of the issues that we need to be more explicit about - that the funding structure is often against what may be the best thing to do.

Obviously, studying walls in Pompeii is a great form of education, and you really get trained in spotting the smallest details. It is just a different set of skills than the usual stratigraphic paradigm. But: we really need people with this kind of skills, and they are by no means less archaeologists than those who know all about trowels and layers. The idea that there is archaeology - which does the digging - and art-history - which does the art - is just plainly untenable: 99% of the Pompeian material is precisely in between these two extremes, including almost all stuff that is 'critically endangered', and there is a list of sites for which exactly the same is true.

So, yes, lets include our funding bodies into the discussion, but at the same time, on the other hand: if we want to improve things, let's start with our own decisions.

Sarah Court said...

exploring issues of fundraising would be very interesting - particularly because there is a huge public desire to donate money to Pompeii's conservation, yet the heritage system doesn't have a way of accepting that money and using. tapping into alternative resources needs to be done sooner or later.

Not pushing for a Vesuvian-area conference if better to host such discussions elsewhere, but it might be intelligent to time an event with September, for example, when lots of colleagues are in the area anyway for fieldwork. Saves trying to artificially gather the rather dispersed Pompeii community - and saves on people's budgets too!

Massimo Betello said...

Miko, I agree with most of your points.
The major activity in Pompeii, at least for the moment, should be preservation and documentation of what is already above ground.
Indeed, Pompeii is such a peculiar and unique site because so much of the city of 79 AD has been preserved, and not because there is archaeology below the 79 AD ground level: every archaeological site has something below ground....
We need to preserve and study this peculiarity and uniqueness first and foremost.
The idea that excavations are "sexier" and appeal more to people might be true in general, but it seems to me that Pompeii is appealing anywhow.
Those involved in archaeology for a longer time are interested in creating meaningful results (and not finding a coin or a piece of pot) no matter how boring and long the process to get there is.
As Miko said, there is need of people able to "read" walls, which is an activity which I deeply enjoy: it is a "different stratigraphy", but still a stratigraphy. And you can get importants results from it.
True, "reading" walls is less exciting than excavating, and it is hard to have many young students really interested in the interpretation of the wall stratigraphy (I know it first hand ...) and committed to do a good job.

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