Excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum Mark the First Systematic Study in Archeology

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Excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum Mark the First Systematic Study in Archeology


When Mount Vesuvius erupted in August of a.d. 79, it destroyed Herculaneum and Pompeii, two lively, bustling Roman cities. The eruption also had the effect of perfectly preserving that moment of tragedy, the daily routines of life in classical Italy, and the structure and art of those ancient cities. Directed by King Charles III of Naples, the initial excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the eighteenth century were the first large-scale archaeological projects in history. The revolutionary methods used during the excavation unearthed enormous historical, architectural, and artistic treasures and formed the basis of the meticulous approach used in today's archaeological techniques.


The volcanic mountain of Vesuvius rises 4,190 feet (1,277 m) above a fertile valley near the Bay of Naples, once home to a bustling seaport of the first-century Roman Empire. The original city of Pompeii was 128 feet (39 m) above sea level, sitting on a prehistoric lava flow about 4.97 miles (8 km) from Mount Vesuvius. Herculaneum, another village in the region, was less than 4.35 miles (7 km) from the base of the volcano. In August of a.d 79. Vesuvius belched out a great plume of smoke, spewing pumice, black ash, stones, and deadly gases from its crater. The steam was estimated to be near 750° Fahrenheit, and with it were hot ash and lethal gasses traveling 100 mph (161 kph). The poisonous eruption swallowed two towns in its path: Pompeii, with nearly 20,000 people, and Herculaneum, 10 miles (16 km) west with approximately 5,000 citizens. The eruption, while swift in its destruction, layered Pompeii in a preserving material nearly 25 feet (7.62 m) deep. The first layer consisted of pumice and lava pebbles. It was followed by a deep layer of ash, and finally a layer of fertile soil collected on top of the ash. Herculaneum was buried even deeper—nearly 65 feet (19.8 m) in places—but frozen under a hardened rock layer of hot mud lava.

The cities were all but forgotten over the years, although the texts of some letters, recording the moment of the eruption, had lasted through the centuries. Probably influenced by a new interest in these letters and some allusions to Pompeii and Herculaneum in ancient art, memory of the towns surfaced in sixteenth-century Italian maps of the region. Count Muzio Tittavilla turned up pieces of ruined buildings and wall paintings while irrigating his land. He notified the architect Domenico Fontana of the finds, but no more investigation was made. Ancient historians, however, were intrigued by the finds and resurrected an interest in Pompeii and Herculaneum in the early seventeenth century.

In 1709 workmen clearing a well in the region encountered a wall of the ancient theater of Herculaneum. Prince D'Elboeuf of Austria, who had occupied land near the site, heard of the discovery, bought the land, and hired the diggers to continue, taking the marble decorations of the stage and many statures from the theater. More looting over the years followed, until King Charles III of Spain was alerted to a tablet discovered in the region. It read Theatrum Herculanensi, leaving no doubt that the ancient city of Herculaneum lay beneath the site.

Up to this point in history, archeology had been a historian's science. Typically, an interested antiquarian would discover a relic, then guess at an explanation for its use and existence. These guesses had formed myths and biblical tales, fueled philosophies, and the led to the creation of deities. The method was more than inexact as a recreation of history—it was frequently inaccurate and unreliable. In addition, most people drawn to excavations in the sixteenth century were seeking treasure, not historical reenactments. The excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum, however, with the towns' perfect preservation, was the first to systematically record and uncover the treasure of history that lay beneath the volcanic rock and ash.


Vases, pieces of buildings, parts of statues, and fragments of artistic paintings were frequently discovered on the grounds near and around the site of Pompeii and Herculaneum. These relics were turned up during the plowing of fields, road construction, or digging wells. During the early 1700s Europe was entering a sort of classical revival in terms of its architecture, art, and images, so these finds could bring a hefty price at the right marketplace. Needless to say, any "excavation" in the early 1700s was more of a looting than a scientific endeavor. Several years after Prince D'Elboeuf plundered the land he purchased, King Charles III of Bourbon acquired the site at the skirt of Vesuvius and assigned his royal engineers to undertake a dig. In 1738 the workers discovered Herculaneum, and the immense excavation began.

Up until this point, even with the sporadic looting and treasure hunting, few people knew exactly where Pompeii and Herculaneum were located. This was partly because the eruption had dramatically changed the coastline, so any previous written geography no longer matched the 1738 landscape. The discovery of the theater at Herculaneum placed the city on a map 4.5 miles (7.24 km) southwest of Vesuvius. Now that Herculaneum was located, the search for the site of Pompeii was next. Local citizens were familiar with some remains of an ancient city on a spur of land near the sea and had referred to it casually as la civita, or "the city."

Years previous, in the sixteenth century, residents had found a tablet inscribed with decurio Pompeiis, but thought it referred to a Roman statesman. In 1748, however, the workers at the Herculaneum site, lured by the rumors that la civita was indeed Pompeii, began digging on the spur. Soon they uncovered wall paintings, a skeleton, and coins. The Spanish workers were ecstatic. The digging here was easier, because while Herculaneum was a solid mass of lava rock, Pompeii was a more shallow layered ground of soft soil and porous ash and pumice. It wasn't until 1763, however, when workers discovered an inscription that included the name of the city, that they were absolutely certain their dig site was Pompeii.

The goals during the first excavation were not entirely noble, however. King Charles was more interested in adding to his personal collection of classical artifacts than analyzing history. Frescoes were removed from walls, statues and valuable artifacts were removed without recording their position in the city, and tunnels were blasted out with gunpowder to move things along more quickly. Temples and houses were ransacked. Foreign dignitaries were brought in as tourists to witness "miraculous" discoveries of treasures that had been removed, then "unearthed" again before the eyes of the impressed visitor.

In 1755, however, a collection of academics saw the growing problem in Herculaneum and Pompeii and formed a group called the Academy of Herculaneum to record in detail the findings at the site. Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768), a German antiquarian, was the first to begin a meticulous record of the objects, placing them in their found locations, in an attempt to understand the events that took down the city and analyze the culture of the ancient lives there. One of the greatest finds in this early, more academic stage of the project was the unearthing of a barracks that served the gladiators of the day. Diggers headed up the side of the barracks and encountered nearly 50 skeletons. The bodies were from all classes of people—evident from their dress and ornaments—who most likely huddled in the barracks to escape the invading ash and mud. This find was one of the first to offer a snapshot of the panic of the eruption. It became one of hundreds of similar scenes that would define the tragedy of that day in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The unique volcanic quality of the ground in this region of Italy had preserved many fragile structures, including wooden beams, furniture, clothing, and even food. From 1750 to 1764 the excavation was directed by Karl Weber, a German engineer. Weber diagrammed the architectural plans of the ruins while recording and documenting the precise location of all found artifacts and bodies. Famous sites, such as the Villa of the Papyri, which held a library of papyri, or philosophical writings, were uncovered during Weber's directorship. The sensational findings brought scholars, royalty, and famous writers, poets, and artists to the dig sites. The land surrounding Vesuvius, however, became France's possession in 1798 under Napoleon, and for many years the excavations were, once again, more for bounty than study. Finally, Italy took back her cities in 1860 and hired a man named Giuseppe Fiorelli (1823-1896) as director of excavations.

Fiorelli took the landmark excavating techniques that started in Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1738 and made them more scientific. He required that every piece of architecture be numbered, he organized the site into districts, and he created a method of duplicating the corpses preserved in Herculaneum's impossible lava rock. He filled the contours of hollow spaces with plaster of Paris, then chipped the stone away. The result was the re-creation of a human body as it died. The dramatic tragedy was relived in the images of struggling men, women, children, and animals, all going about their daily routines when the eruption occurred.

Fiorelli's meticulous technique has changed little today, and it built on the basic, although frequently misguided, approach to the first excavations at the cities of Vesuvius. The cities themselves are only two-thirds completely excavated, and new techniques to preserve the exact moment of their destruction are constantly improving.


Further Reading


Brilliant, Richard. Pompeii a.d. 79, The Treasure of Rediscovery. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1979.

Grant, Michael. Cities of Vesuvius. New York: Macmillan Company, 1971.

Time Life Books. Pompeii: The Vanished City. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1992.

Internet Sites

Pompeii Forum Project.http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/pompeii/page-1.html.