Tuesday 8 December 2009

Should we rebury Pompeii?

Google Street View has generated an awful lot of chatter about Pompeii on Twitter and in other blogs. I came across one blogger the other day who was advocating the reburial of the site as a solution to its conservation problems, since computer-generated reconstructions mean that tourists no longer need to visit. Conservators are fighting a losing battle, even when they have appropriate funding. Pompeii is dying, there is no doubt about it.
You can imagine my knee-jerk reaction to the idea of burying Pompeii, because I'm sure you all just had it too! But since then I have been mulling the idea over. So here are my thoughts, in no particular order. I'd be really interested to know what anyone else thinks.
  • This is not a new idea, but one that surfaces every few years, often alongside with the idea of building a replica Pompeii for tourists (the best versions imagine the real site left to scholars - now, there's an idea!). The thing is, a replica - whether real or digital - can't reproduce the atmosphere of Pompeii and the experience of walking its streets and entering its houses. We need to remember that Pompeii is a tourist site. I sometimes think that we scholars are there on sufferance. The SAP likes us, for sure, for I don't think the Italian government cares all that much unless there is money to be made. Perhaps I am being too cynical. But note that the majority of Fiori's current initiatives are to do with making the site more accessible and enjoyable for tourists. Even if scholars all agreed that Pompeii should be reburied, the government would never allow it to happen.
  • Burying Pompeii would be an economic disaster for the region. Ok, the entrance ticket money goes directly to the site and funds (one hopes) conservation and other necessary works. But an entire modern town depends on Pompeii for its livelihood - hotels, restaurants, shops, stalls. This is an economically depressed region at the best of times. Reburying Pompeii would destroy it.
  • How exactly would it be reburied? Practically, I mean. It took years of effort to get rid of the fill in the first place! Anyone who has read the excavation reports knows that this issue was a serious and costly one. Thank goodness for the A3 autostrada, since that used up a lot of lapilli! So what could be used to rebury the site, where would it come from, and how much would it cost to do it?!
  • Covering Pompeii over would mean the end of stratigraphic excavation. Reconstructions would document the state of the town in AD 79 (or should I say 2009!), but investigations into Pompeii's pre-AD 79 history would stop. We wouldn't be able to answer any of our questions about the development of the site, for example.
  • Would any reconstruction really be able to document everything? Scholars are finding new things all the time - I'm thinking about recent research into upper floors and on graffiti, but there are other examples too. And wouldn't the reconstructions decay too (look at the current condition of the Pompejanum at Aschaffenburg, for example)? Even computer-generated reconstructions will eventually degrade.

So is there is a solution? Personally I don't think we can stop the destruction of Pompeii. We can slow it (as they are doing in Herculaneum), but Pompeii won't be around 1000 years from now. Just look at the parts of the town excavated in the 1700s. The walls have crumbled, the wall-paintings have disappeared. And this has happened DESPITE conservation attempts (yes, the first efforts of conservation occurred in the 1770s and have continued since then). So our job is to study and record (in multiple formats) as much as we can now, and to support any efforts of conservation. There is no point complaining about the inevitable decay of the site.

1 comment:

Jo Berry said...

From David Emery:
'Sooner or later, Vesuvius will do it anyway :-)
Seriously, it's not a bad idea to rebury parts, but keep other parts open. There is nothing like walking the ground to get a sense of scale and proportion; no computer simulation will do that for you. The idea would be to concentrate the conservation efforts onto a smaller area where they can be more effective.'

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