Wednesday 11 May 2011

Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 2: Excavation and conservation

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Herculaneum. Past and Future.
(Frances Lincoln, 2011; 352 pages, ISBN-10: 0711231427; ISBN-13: 978-0711231429)
(Click here for the introduction to this series of posts about Herculaneum Past and Future)

One of the aspects of AWH’s book that particularly interested me was his emphasis on the presentation of Herculaneum by its excavators, and the knock-on effect that this has had on preservation and approaches to conservation.

AWH makes the point that the excavations of Herculaneum (and Pompeii) have always been the result of the political circumstances and ideology of the time. Large-scale excavation is expensive, so there was always an agenda, a reason to spur on excavation. This is true of the earliest explorations of Herculaneum (and AWH is particularly good on Charles of Bourbon), the 19th century open-air excavations by Fiorelli, and the Fascist-era clearances under Maiuri. Excavations have the potential to generate widespread public interest, and this was exploited by the excavators in each of these periods. But public interest can also lead to criticism, and the earliest excavations were ‘a PR disaster’ for the new kingdom of Naples. Visitors were treated badly, and were shocked that finds were routinely destroyed by the excavators. The waves of criticism from around Europe led to a change of attitude, and the excavators began to consider how to present the ruins to visitors.

This has been a major factor at both Herculaneum and Pompeii ever since, and it has also had an impact on attitudes towards conservation. I really enjoyed reading about early experiments and techniques of conservation – although I would have liked more detail about this. But let’s jump forward to Maiuri’s excavations of Herculaneum from 1927 – 1943. Maiuri was Herculaneum’s principal publicist, and it is interesting that – unlike at Pompeii – all the publications of Herculaneum in this period are in Maiuri’s name. He staked his claim to Herculaneum even though, as James Andrews has pointed out to me, the excavation reports suggest that he didn’t visit the site all that often after 1927 (not surprising, really, since he was also responsible for Naples and Pompeii). And Herculaneum today is the result of Maiuri’s vision of the ancient town. In AWH’s words, ‘what we see is not an ancient town as preserved by an eruption, but fragments painstakingly pieced together, stabilized, reinforced and ‘restored’ by Maiuri’ (p.74).
©Gionata Rizzi. North-south cross sections of the Houses of the Gem and the Telephus Relief, looking west (above) and east (below). Parts shaded in blue are modern reconstruction. Drawing by Gionata Rizzi.

In order to excavate an ancient site that had been devastated by a major volcanic eruption, Maiuri had to restore. Thus, for example, only 50% of the standing remains of the House of Telephus are ancient; the rest was carefully restored by Maiuri in line with his interpretations of the ancient texts. He also had the visitor in mind. The shop of the House of Neptune and Amphitrite is completely staged, as was the ‘room of the weaving girl’, which displayed the skeleton of a girl and small reconstruction loom – even though the skeleton was actually that of a young boy and no other finds were made in the room. And there are other examples where Maiuri chose to display a good story, not to be deceitful but to give a sense of life to the excavations that tourists could appreciate and enjoy. Of course, Maiuri wasn’t the first excavator to come up with the idea of presenting the excavations as a ‘living museum’, but he was the most successful. To my mind this attitude remains today (and not just in the Bay of Naples). I’ve even (rarely, it is true) seen artefacts ‘staged’ for journalists. Is this wrong? I’m not sure and I’d be interested to hear what others have to think. As long as there is a proper scientific publication is there any harm in playing to the public a little in the newspapers? But of course Maiuri’s excavation reports from Herculaneum and Pompeii have not been published, so this blurs the line between fact and fiction.

Despite Maiuri’s little fictions, he was responsible for establishing an effective maintenance programme for the buildings he restored. It was only when funding for this was withdrawn in the 1970s that Herculaneum began to decay. And this is what is happening at Pompeii today. I hardly need to remind anyone of the collapse of the Schola Armaturarum in November last year, which is merely the most publicised of the collapses that Pompeii has suffered in the last few years. Conservation is a burning issue today, and not just at Pompeii and Herculaneum, but it’s also a complex issue. This is why the Herculaneum Conservation Project is so important. This is the most ambitious conservation project in Europe – although part of its success is down to the sheer amount of money that the Packard Humanities Project has been prepared to spend on it. However, this project lights the way. Conservation influences excavation. This is something that Maiuri understood, too, and something that AWH discusses at length in his book. How do we find the money for conservation? Who should be responsible for it? One thing I would like to know is, what will happen to Herculaneum when the HCP finishes its work?

©Andrew Wallace-Hadrill. Excavation trench leading to the Villa of the Papyri, after conservation work and new protective shelters (2009).

(All images are taken from Herculaneum Past and Future and are reproduced with the permission of Frances Lincoln).

In the next post in this series, a discussion of Herculaneum's town plan and its history.

Previous posts:
Herculaneum. Past and Future.
Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 1: General overview
Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 1: General overview, a response

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