Above image from here.
About Pompeii and Herculaneum
Information on buildings, religion, everyday life, social hierarchy, politics and economy in Pompeii and Herculaneum can be inferred from the remains of the excellently preserved cities.
Both cities reside in the Campania region of Italy, renowned for its fertile soil and breathtaking landscapes. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 buried the cities in ash and volcanic material. Uneducated in the pre-cursors of volcanic activity such as the earthquake of AD 62, the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum were taken unawares on the 24th of August AD 79 when Vesuvius erupted. Ancient sources such as Pliny the Younger describe how a “cloud of unusual size and appearance” like a “pine tree” rose from the mountain and began to spit out “bits of pumice” on the lands surrounding the volcano (Pliny the Younger: Letters). Modern volcanologists agree with Pliny’s account and add that the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were subjected to six pyroclastic surges. These surges are visible as thin black layers of stata which used to be a mass of hot ash and rock that can travel up to 300km/h
The deaths or the residents in both cities vary. In Pompeii residents died of collapsing buildings under the weight of fallen pumice and from excruciating asphyxiation after inhaling hot ash. The deaths at Herculaneum where much quicker, inhabitants died after intense heat from the pyroclastic either carbonised the bodies or boiled their brains.
The superheated volcanic material which settled on both cities preserved most buildings, and in Herculaneum organic matter, which means archaeologists can learn much about life in the Roman world.
Archaeologists of Pompeii and Herculaneum
Long before serious archaeological work was undertaken at Pompeii and Herculaneum, both cities had already been slightly excavated by treasure hunters in search of riches from the ancient world. A haphazard and destructive approach was taken when excavating as can be seen by the Prince d’Elbeuf who located Herculaneum but relieved its theatre of many artefacts. Other attempts to find treasure were undertaken by the King of Sicily who took two bronze horses from Pompeii and the Charles III of Spain.
However, methods and aim of excavation developed in 1787 under the guidance of Karl Webber. He is considered the father of archaeology because he and Francisco La Vega were responsible for making detailed sketches of their finds such as the Villa of Papyri in Herculaneum. Webber's change of approach in archaeology was revolutionary, although, despite his best intentions his excavations were still damaging and messy.
In 1763 modern archaeology was founded by J.J. Winckleman who changed the way artefacts were viewed. Instead of seeing treasure or objects of wealth he saw that it was possible to gage an understanding of the lives of people in ancient cultures through artefacts. Winckleman also introduced a scientific method to excavation; bringing much order, system and knowledge to archaeology. His changes can be seen later on in the early 1880's when 1500 workmen systematically uncovered the full extent of Pompeii’s city walls.
Next in the history of Pompeii and Herculaneum’s history of excavation came four archaeologists who are the cities’ most renowned so far. Fiorelli, Mau, Spinazzola and Maiuri were responsible for bring much order and system into the excavation work in Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Guiseppe Fiorelli was significant to the archaeology undertaken at Pompeii because he began a line of successful excavations following Winckleman’s scientific principle. Fiorelli began stratigraphic digging which allowed archaeologists to form small theories which could join together to form an overall picture. He also was the first to recognise the potential of the ash cavities of the bodies. By pouring plaster of Paris into them he was able to recreate the bodies and learn much about the deaths of the people in Pompeii.
August Mau did not excavate as much at Pompeii and Herculaneum, instead, he focused on analysing and recording the numerous wall paintings in the houses. He divided the paintings into four styles: incrustation, masonry, ornament and intricate. Mau is significant for following Fiorelli’s systematic approach; he believed that paintings should not be taken from their places which left the decoration in need of protection. The idea of leaving artefacts where they are found is one which still continues in archaeology today.
Vittorio Spinazzola is known for his meticulous excavation of 600 metres of Pompeii’s main road Via Dell’ Abbondanza. His systematic plan uncovered much of the town’s southeast region with the motive of discovery Pompeii’s plan. Spinazzola has been criticised for only excavating the building fronts and leaving the soil behind which meant that the walls needed to be propped up or they would collapse.
Amedeo Maiuri brought the most scientific approach to excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum so far. In ten years he excavated more than ten of Pompeii’s insulae in a methodical manner. In Herculaneum he abandoned the tunnel digging technique and began to work from the surface down, uncovering much of the city. Maiuri also made sure that excavations were well funded by starting a tourism program to gain funds and ensuring the continuity of state funds.
Archaeology work undertaken at Pompeii and Herculaneum has changed in aim and technique from the 15th century to present day meaning that artefacts can be learnt from and conserved much better.