Saturday 31 January 2009

Ethical archaeology?

Reading Miko Flohr's comment on my post of 29th January (Primo tentativo di colorazione di tessuti usando le techniche degli antichi) about the ethical use of the archaeological remains, I suddenly remembered a newspaper article that I came across a few years ago. The article dates to 1899 and was published in The Times. It describes a plan for the ruins of Pompeii. Here is an extract.

'[Chevalier Pesce, architect of the Italian Embassy in Paris] proposes to reconstitute Pompeii – not the Pompeii of the familiar ruins, but the brilliant city as it existed before the stream of fire from Vesuvius had buried it from sight. The project has been in preparation for the past two years, and the most distinguished names in France, the men most eminent in all branches of art and science, have unhesitatingly promised their support to M. Pesce. Another scheme, it true, for the reproduction of the existing ruins was recently talked of, but this latter scheme failed to receive support and encouragement from the competent specialists who had so ardently adopted the idea, as M. Pesce calls it, of Pompeii vivante. Pompeii undoubtedly is a name to conjure with, one of those magic words that have laid hold of the imagination of the world. Even in their existing state whoever has had the good fortune to visit the ruins of Pompeii has carried away an impression that nothing can efface, and has been haunted by the desire to behold once more the vanished city which the excavations of recent times have partly brought to light. The scheme of M. Pesce is almost complete realization of this dream. He proposes to restore to us the life of the forum, the camp, the gladiators, the Temple of Isis, the theatre bordering on the forum, the numerous shops and public baths, and all those houses, squares, and open spaces where formerly were concentrated the life, the activity, the pleasures, the celebrations and public spectacles which made this watering-place by the Mediterranean one of the most attractive spots in the Italian peninsula. No detail in the life of Pompeii known to archaeology in the period before the disappearance of the ancient town seems likely to be neglected in this magical evocation, and the spectator wandering across the city will find himself suddenly in the midst of that ancient life which, without this artificial aid, it would be so difficult even for the most learned imaginations to evoke. Numerous actors, in costumes archaeologically accurate, will give to the city its former animation. The forum is to be crowded with a constantly moving throng. The arena will be given up to the gladiatorial combat. The lines of shops will offer the most varied products for sale. The charlatans and hawkers will scream their wares in the streets. Chariot wheels will follow the deep-dug ruts in the stone highways. The mysteries will be celebrated in the Temple of Isis. Orators will harangue the crowd in the public squares – in fact, the whole town, re-peopled, will rise from the ashes beneath which it was buried in one of the most terrible of catastrophes.’

One of the things that interests me here is how the idea of either restoring Pompeii to its former glory, or building a replica for tourists to visit, keeps repeating. There was a newspaper report within the last ten years that reported a proposal to build a replica of the Via dell' Abbondanza (I think, but I can't find the article now) near to the excavations so that tourists could visit that and the site itself could be left to scholars. There have also been suggestions that some of the more ruinous parts of the city could be reconstructed for tourists. Although I quite like the idea of having Pompeii to myself (!), I hate the idea of a 'Pompeii-land'. Thankfully nothing ever comes of these plans ...

But concerning the experimental reconstruction of ancient dyeing techniques reported by Miko, what concerns me is that the vats were presumably reconstructed just to be used the once. What happens to them now? Are they on display to tourists, or are they just mouldering in the ruins? Has irrevocable damage been done to the site for the sake of a single experiment?


Virginia Campbell said...

Oddly, I had a similar discussion about this sort of thing during a lecture the other day. Whilst I hate the idea of a 'Pompeii-land' as you say, I think there are other ways to present the site to tourists that would, to some extent, minimize the damage caused by the thousands. It has always struck me as odd that there is no real museum on site. So many people completely miss the artwork and artefacts that have been removed to Naples, and if a proper facility could be built nearer the site, I think attendance would increase. I also think that there is a lack of a comprehensive overview for the average tourist - the site is massive, and so often people wander around not having the first clue about what they are seeing. I was greatly impressed by digital reconstructions of floor plans, etc. that could be moved, examined and otherwise manipulated by the viewer when I was at the Anne Frank museum last spring, and it seems to me that the technology is available to create some incredibly dynamic overviews of Pompeii - specific buildings or areas - that could be seen both as they stand, and in a reconstructed format. All of this could be part of a truly state of the art museum, which could (after intial expenditure of course) create increased revenue used for maintianing the site, allow tourists to experience Pompeii, and perhaps also allow more of the site to be closed to anyone but scholars.

Jo Berry said...

It's a shame that the Antiquarium was destroyed during WW2, isn't it? And amazing that it was never reconstructed. I quite often think that Pompeii isn't a particularly satisfying tourist experience. It was very frustrating a few years back when the BSR with others held the Unpeeling Pompeii exhibition. In addition to an exhibition in the Auditorium, descriptive panels were put up in all the houses and shops that participants had studied. The day after the exhibition closed the Soprintendenza took them all down ... All the money that went in to producing them, and they were dumped. I have never understood why they couldn't have been left in place. Sigh. Anyway, I can't help but think that one of the stumbling blocks to your suggestions (apart from the intial expenditure, which might be hard to justify in light of all the necessary conservation), which I like very much, would be lack of motivation and desire to improve the tourist experience from the Soprintendenza. Then again let's see what impact Renato Profili has since one of his aims is to improve tourist conditions!

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