Pompeii Still Has Buried Secrets

The journey from Naples to the ruins of Pompeii takes about half an hour on the Circumvesuviana, a train that rattles through a ribbon of land between the base of Mt. Vesuvius, on one side, and the Gulf of Naples, on the other. The area is built up, but when I travelled the route earlier…

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

The journey from Naples to the ruins of Pompeii takes about half an hour on the Circumvesuviana, a train that rattles through a ribbon of land between the base of Mt. Vesuvius, on one side, and the Gulf of Naples, on the other. The area is built up, but when I travelled the route earlier this fall I could catch glimpses of the glittering sea behind apartment buildings. Occasionally, the mountainous coast across the bay came into sight, in the direction of the old Roman port of Misenum—where, in 79 A.D., the naval commander and prolific author Pliny the Elder watched Vesuvius erupt. Pliny, who led a rescue effort by sea, was killed by one of the volcano’s surges of gas and rock; his nephew, Pliny the Younger, provided the only surviving eyewitness account of the disaster. My view sometimes opened up in the opposite direction, toward the volcano, to reveal farmland or a stand of umbrella pines, their tall trunks giving way to billowing needle-covered branches. Pliny the Younger compared the shape of these trees to the volcanic eruption, with its column of smoke rising to a puffy cloud of ash that hovered, and then collapsed, burying a good part of what is now the Circumvesuviana’s route.

I got off at the stop called Pompeii Scavi—“the ruins of Pompeii”—and headed toward the modern gates that surround the ancient city. Before Pompeii was drowned in ash, it had a circumference of about two miles, enclosing an area of some hundred and seventy acres—a fifth the size of Central Park. Its population is estimated to have been about eleven thousand, roughly the same number as live in Battery Park City. After the ruins were rediscovered, in the mid-eighteenth century, formal excavations continued throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, with successive directors of the site exposing mansions, temples, baths, and, eventually, entire streets paved with volcanic rock. About a third of the ancient city has yet to be excavated, however; the consensus among scholars is that this remainder should be left for future archeologists, and their presumably more sophisticated technologies.

At some ancient Roman sites, such as nearby Herculaneum, unexcavated areas have been topped with contemporary buildings. But at Pompeii, once you walk inside the gates, you can almost block out the modern world: the ancient city is full of spectacular vistas, with the straight lines of its gridded streets leading to Vesuvius in the distance. And, every so often, a visitor comes across a street or an alleyway that dead-ends at a twenty-foot-high escarpment covered with scrubby grass. This is the boundary between Pompeii’s revealed past and its still buried one.

I had come to Pompeii to explore one such boundary, at the abrupt terminus of the Vicolo delle Nozze d’Argento—the Street of the Silver Wedding—in a corner of what archeologists have designated as Regio V, the city’s fifth region. For many years, the formal excavations stopped here, just past one of Pompeii’s grandest mansions: the House of the Silver Wedding, which was uncovered in the late nineteenth century and named, in 1893, in honor of the twenty-fifth wedding anniversary of the Italian monarch, Umberto I, and his wife, Margherita of Savoy. The spacious house, which is believed to have belonged to a Pompeiian bigwig named Lucius Albucius Celsus, included a salon fitted with a barrel-vaulted ceiling supported by columns of trompe-l’oeil porphyry, and an atrium, decorated with frescoes, that scholars regard as the finest of its kind in the city.

In the ruins of Pompeii, discovery has often gone hand in hand with destruction.Photograph by Michele Amoruso / Getty

I discovered that the mansion was closed for renovations: the clattering of workmen emanated from behind its high brick walls. But I wasn’t too disappointed—my interest was in what lay just beyond it, at a newly exposed crossroads. This is the site of the first significant excavations in decades of ruins embalmed by the 79 A.D. eruption. Since 2018, restoration work has been under way in Regio V to reshape and shore up the escarpment. Made up of impacted ash and lapilli, or pebbles of pumice, it had become increasingly vulnerable to collapse, especially after heavy rain. (When chunks of the escarpment broke off, artifacts and structures buried inside it were often obliterated.) Collapses aside, the weight of the unexcavated land in Regio V put the adjacent excavated area at risk by exerting immense pressure on exposed walls, some of which date to the first or second century B.C. The fragile escarpment threatened to make a ruin of the ruins.

Through a careful combination of archeology and engineering, the escarpment has been reshaped into a more gradual slope, with an exposed surface of rocky fragments secured by sturdy mesh. In order to lessen the gradient, it has been necessary to unearth a small area of previously buried streets and structures. In recent decades, most archeological excavations at Pompeii have been of layers that predated the first-century city—digging down to reveal, for example, that several of the town’s temples were built on structures that dated to the sixth century B.C. The new excavations in Regio V—conducted with the latest archeological methods, and an up-to-the-minute scholarly focus on such issues as class and gender—have yielded powerful insights into how Pompeii’s final residents lived and died. As Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, a professor emeritus at Cambridge University and an authority on the city, told me, “You only have to excavate a tiny amount in Pompeii to come up with dramatic discoveries. It’s always spectacular.”

My guide to the restorations of Regio V was Gabriel Zuchtriegel, who this past February was appointed the director of the Archeological Park of Pompeii. Forty years old, the German-born Zuchtriegel was formerly the director of the archeological site at Paestum, forty-odd miles south of Pompeii. As we walked around Regio V, he deftly navigated the uneven roads and talked about ongoing work: “We are not going to excavate just for the sake of excavating. It would be very problematic, and somehow irresponsible.” However, in the course of stabilizing this stretch of the boundary, in 2019, archeologists realized that they had come upon a structure worthy of a full excavation: a thermopolium, or snack bar, which was situated just across the street from the House of the Silver Wedding, as if the Frick mansion were cheek by jowl with a Gray’s Papaya.

The thermopolium, which opened to visitors in August, is a delight. A masonry counter is decorated with expertly rendered and still vivid images: a fanciful depiction of a sea nymph perched on the back of a seahorse; a trompe-l’oeil painting of two strangled ducks on a countertop, ready for the butcher’s knife; a fierce-looking dog on a leash. The unfaded colors—coral red for the webbed feet of the pitiful ducks, shades of copper and russet for the feathers of a buoyant cockerel that has yet to meet the ducks’ fate—are as eye-catching now as they would have been for passersby two millennia ago. (Today, they are protected from the elements and the sunlight by glass.) Another panel, bordered in black, is among Pompeii’s most self-referential art works: a representation of a snack bar, with the earthenware vessels known as amphorae stacked against a counter laden with pots of food. A figure—perhaps the snack bar’s proprietor—bustles in the background. The effect is similar to that of a diner owner who displays a blown-up selfie on the wall behind his cash register.

It turns out that few of Pompeii’s more straitened residents had a place at home to cook. “Rich people had kitchens in their houses, and banquet rooms and gardens,” Zuchtriegel told me, as we walked around the thermopolium. “But most inhabitants didn’t live in such places—they had small apartments, or even one-room flats. During the daytime, their place was a shop or a workshop, and at night the family would just close up the front and sleep there. And, when they could afford it, they would come here and have a warm meal, and take their plate and eat it on the street.”

Several tourists were peering through the glass into the thermopolium, as if they were hungry Pompeiians surveying the fare on offer. Zuchtriegel took a step back, toward a fountain; it would have provided fresh water for drinking, bathing, or cooling down. “It was life on the street, as today we can still see in Naples,” he said.

In 2018, a fresco of Cupid was discovered inside a sumptuous, newly excavated villa that has been named the House of the Garden.Photograph by Carlo Hermann / Getty

The thermopolium on the Vicolo delle Nozze d’Argento is far from unique—through the centuries, about eighty such establishments have been identified in Pompeii. But archeological science is now more evolved, Zuchtriegel told me, and at the new site scholars “can use modern technologies and methodologies to analyze what was inside the pots.” Fragments of duck bone were discovered in one of the containers, which are known as dolia, suggesting that the paintings of ducks served not just as decoration but as advertising. In other dolia, scholars found traces of cooked pig; what appears to be a stew of sheep, fish, and land snails; and crushed fava beans. A book of recipes attributed to Apicius, a celebrated Roman gourmet from the first century A.D., explains that “bean meal” can be used to clarify the color and flavor of wine.

These near-invisible remains of foodstuffs do not just provide information about the diet of Pompeii’s working classes. According to Sophie Hay, a British archeologist who has worked extensively at Pompeii, they also shed new light on the rhythms of civic life. “Up until this bar was excavated, people who study these things have gone around believing that the dolia contained only dry foodstuffs,” she told me. “There are Roman laws that said bars shouldn’t serve this kind of warm food, like hot meat, so we’ve been guided by the classical sources. Then, suddenly, there is this one bar that is definitely serving hot food. And is it the only bar in the Roman world to have done this? Unlikely. So that is huge.” A new story appears to be emerging from the lapilli: of a cunning bar owner who reckons that an authority from distant Rome isn’t likely to shut down his operation, or who is confident that the local authorities—the kind of Pompeiians who live in grand houses—will turn a blind eye to an illegal takeout business that keeps their less affluent neighbors fed with cheap but tasty fish-and-snail soup.

A decade or so ago, a different story about the walls of Pompeii prevailed—that they were crumbling from neglect and from the ineptitude of the site’s custodians. In late 2010, a stone building known as the House of the Gladiators imploded after heavy rains, severely damaging valuable frescoes inside. That disaster was followed by the collapse elsewhere in the city of several other walls. The media responded with a wave of alarmed stories; a typical headline, from National Geographic, asked, “pompeii is crumbling—can it be saved?” Italy’s President at the time, Giorgio Napolitano, declared the condition of Pompeii “a shame for Italy.” Pompeii was also afflicted with human corruption, with the Camorra—the Neapolitan Mafia—exerting influence over its custodial ranks and on the local businesses that catered to the 2.3 million tourists who visited annually. In 2012, the European Union intervened, underwriting the Great Pompeii Project, which offered a hundred and forty million dollars to Pompeii for conservation and restoration.

Despite this narrative of decline—much of which presumed that Italy was unwilling, or unable, to take care of its greatest asset, its cultural patrimony—the deterioration at Pompeii was inevitable. In some instances, what had given way and caused walls to crumble were not bricks laid by ancient Romans but concrete restorations carried out after the Second World War, during which Pompeii was assaulted by Allied forces who mistook corrugated-metal roofs covering excavation sites for Nazi barracks. Mary Beard, a professor at Cambridge University who is among the Anglophone world’s best-known interpreters of Roman history, told me, “The fate of Pompeii is quite mythologized, and has become a shorthand symbol for lots of other issues in heritage management. The P.R. used to be ‘Well, we can’t even keep Pompeii up, the place is falling down, it’s a terrible disgrace.’ Of course the place is falling down—it’s a ruin. There are totally unreasonable expectations of what Pompeii can be, and how it can be preserved.”

In 2014, the archeologist Massimo Osanna was appointed director of Pompeii, and he immediately launched an effort to restore confidence in the future of the ancient past. Sophie Hay told me, “I went to Pompeii shortly after Osanna got the job, and after five minutes on the site with him I got the idea of where he was going. He walked down the main street, the Via dell’Abbondanza, and there was all this horrible plastic netting in the doorways of buildings, the sort used on building sites to keep people out.” The site looked bandaged and bruised. “He was absolutely horrified—he called people over who were working there and said, ‘Can’t we just remove all of this?’ ” Osanna made Pompeii more inviting to visitors, and by 2019 their numbers had swollen to four million annually. That year, the House of the Gladiators reopened to the public after a reconstruction of its damaged frescoes, becoming a symbol not of Pompeii’s decline but of its renewed vitality.

Meanwhile, the charismatic Osanna won over the press by trumpeting discoveries resulting from the restoration work in Regio V. “He was absolutely brilliant at it,” Beard told me. “Without actually doing any major excavation, he gave a series of carefully timed bits of good news.” A headless male skeleton was discovered at a crossroads next to the House of the Silver Wedding, as was a huge block of stone, which lay, almost cartoonishly, right where the skull should have been. (The gruesome suggestion that the man had been decapitated was overturned by later analysis, which suggested that he had been suffocated by the pyroclastic flow—superheated rock, ash, and gases that rushed down Vesuvius’s flank.) In a house that had been buried beneath a swath of rough land, a fresco depicting the god Priapus weighing his oversized member on a scale was uncovered. The press hailed the new discoveries, and in 2020 Osanna was named director general of Italy’s state-run museums.

Read More