Pompeii evolves with the times

POMPEI, Italy – On a recent morning at the Porta Sarno necropolis, just outside Pompeii’s eastern boundary, Mattia Buondonno delicately ...


POMPEI, Italy – On a recent morning at the Porta Sarno necropolis, just outside Pompeii’s eastern boundary, Mattia Buondonno delicately lifted a protective tarp covering a tomb discovered last year.

According to the inscription on the pediment of the tomb, its occupant was a freed slave named Marcus Venerius Secundio, who became wealthy and “held performances in Greek and Latin which lasted four days”, read Buondonno, a guide tourist of Pompeii, translating from Latin. .

Inside the tomb, which is believed to date back just decades before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that smothered Pompeii in AD 79, archaeologists had uncovered one of the best-preserved skeletons ever found. “It’s weird for this era. Normally adults were cremated,” Buondonno said.

But the tomb was important for other reasons as well.

“Recent finds like this show us new insight into the lower classes of Pompeii,” said Luana Toniolo, a former archaeologist from Pompeii, who excavated the site. In particular, an epigraph with the condensed biography of Secundio – which also says that he was a guardian at the Temple of Venus and trained for the priesthood in a cult – shed light on certain professions to which freed slaves “might aspire”, a- she declared.

For archaeologists, the tomb inscription was also important as confirmation of a previously unverified theory that depictions at Pompeii were presented in Greek, the most widely used language in the eastern Mediterranean. . Whether it was music or theater was still unclear, but it was proof that Pompeii had been a cosmopolitan city.

“We know that people from all over the Mediterranean lived in Pompeii,” said site manager Gabriel Zuchtriegel, 40. a video about the find. It was an open and multi-ethnic society, he added.

In the past, visitors flocked to ancient ruins primarily to see dazzling frescoes in grand mansions, captivated by the tragedy of an ancient civilization that stood no chance of surviving the tons of ash, gas and rock that stifled life in the city. . But Zuchtriegel, the Italian-German archaeologist who took over Pompeii in 2021, hopes that under his leadership visitors will learn about the ancient city through a broader lens, exploring its complex social stratification.

“Many of the questions we address today are inspired by other emerging fields here, such as gender studies and postcolonial studies,” Zuchtriegel said. “We must not forget that all the wealth and works of art that we see in Pompeii are really based on a society where not only did slavery exist, but there was no concept of social welfare. “

Hard evidence of the dark life slaves endured emerged last year with the discovery of “the slave room” in one villa north of Pompeii. The cramped space contained three beds (the smallest could accommodate a child), as well as a chamber pot and large jugs, suggesting that its inhabitants lived in what was also a storage area. The room was lit by a small upper window.

“Sometimes you’re suddenly very close to this reality of what the majority of people in Pompeii probably experienced,” Zuchtriegel said. “I think it was a very tough society.”

There are still plenty of things to cross off Zuchtriegel’s checklist to bring a site frozen in the first century into the 21st.

“We still need to think about how to better include people with disabilities, children, people from different cultural backgrounds,” he said. “It’s not just about barrier-free access, but also the language we use and the way we try to explain the site.”

For some, it is high time that these issues were finally made public. Sarah E. Bond, associate professor of history at the University of Iowa, said over the phone that “often archaeologists can be conservative with the topics they cover,” but added, “I’m delighted to see things start to happen in Pompeii. .”

Increasingly, there has been a broader shift in scientific research in the ancient world to investigate previously overlooked issues – “things like sexual assault, rape or slavery” – Bond said. . “It’s just great to see Italian archaeologists now overseeing Pompeii as a museum site, addressing important issues of gender, forced labor and violence.”

Among others headline-grabbing discoveries of recent years was a well preserved thermopolishedor ancient snack bar, which spotlighted ancient culinary tastes, which included a soupy concoction of snails, mutton and fish: “Pompeii street food,” Zuchtriegel joked.

In the so-called ‘House with the Garden’ not far from the thermopolium, a charcoal inscription found on a wall of the atrium appears to date Vesuvius’ eruption to October rather than August, as has traditionally been believed. . “There were already many signs that the eruption was in the fall: traces of pomegranates, fermenting wine, hearths in some rooms. You don’t light a fire in August,” said Nicola Meluziis, an employee of the site of Pompeii.

Much of the work carried out over the past decade has been placed under the aegis of the Pompeii Grand Project. The $137 million effort, funded by the European Union, began in 2013 to better preserve the site, after a building collapsed in 2010 sparking international debate. about the interview there.

“The money has been spent, and well spent,” said Zuchtriegel, praising his predecessor, Massimo Osanna, who oversaw the site when the money flowed, before being promoted to oversee all Italian museums. Osanna caused “a huge turnaround”, he said.

It also included an about-face in how Pompeii communicated, said Bond, who credited Osanna with giving Pompeii a strong social media presence. During his tenure, Pompeii sparked public interest by using Instagram and Twitter to announce the finds, rather than keeping them secret until they were published in scholarly journals, the old way of doing things. in Italy. “I saw a whole new generation of people step up who had never been to the Pompeii site, ever,” Bond said. “But they saw it on Instagram and they were captivated.”

Online presence aside, for Zuchtriegel, the site’s real challenges are on the ground, exacerbated by climate change, which he says has had a measurable impact: the site was now subject to sudden temperature changes from the hot to cold and dry spells. , as well as very heavy rains. “All of this adds stress to ancient structures and frescoes, and that’s very concerning,” he said. “There’s a reason why indoor museums normally have air conditioning.”

New technologies – including sensors, thermal cameras and drones – are being introduced to Pompeii to provide data and images that immediately alert staff members to potential problems, such as dampness in walls or seismic activity .

“The goal is to get a real-time picture of what’s really going on,” so it’s possible to intervene before it’s too late, Zuchtriegel said.

Artificial intelligence and robotics are also used to to assemble the ceiling frescoes of the House of Painters at Work, which was destroyed in a World War II bombing. (This building, a former house, got its name from the fact that paint cans and brushes were found in one room.) And 3D laser scanning technology was used to make a model of a horse skeleton unearthed in 1938 that recreated some of its missing parts.

New technologies will also play a part in explaining to visitors an area being restored at the western end of the ancient site called “Insula Occidentalis”, which includes several urban villas built on a slope overlooking the Gulf of Naples.

Paolo Mighetto, the architect overseeing the project, said brainstorming is underway on how best to make the area come alive for the public, perhaps using holograms or some sort of interactive lighting. “We are thinking about different solutions,” he said. (It already exists a Pompeii app which people can download to their smartphones and get building information by scanning QR codes throughout the site.)

One villa in the area, the so-called Library House, offered a particularly interesting “treasure chest,” Mighetto said. It gives a general idea of ​​some 2,000 years of upheaval, including a major earthquake in AD 62; the eruption of Mount Vesuvius; The first excavations of Pompeii in the 18th century, when underground tunnels were dug under the building; and the deformations caused by the bombs of the Second World War.

“We see traces of a succession of events over time,” Mighetto said. “Our challenge is to allow visitors to see the traces of these disastrous events through the lesions, cracks and deformations of the masonry” so that they can better “understand the drama of the past”, thanks to these new technologies.

In a way too, Pompeii has always been an avant-garde site.

“Not just for archaeology, but for restoration techniques and to make archeology accessible to the public,” Zuchtriegel said. “And that had a huge impact.”

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