Hazardous Living: Bringing down the house at Pompeii

by Megan Sever
Thursday, January 5, 2012

Megan Sever (pictured at Yellowstone) writes Hazardous Living for EARTH. Megan Sever

Heavy rains last week caused the roof of a 2,000-year-old frescoed house at Pompeii to crash in, much to the dismay of the Italian government. The house, thought to have been erected just before Vesuvius buried Pompeii under six meters of ash in A.D. 79, was outside an amphitheatre and had been used by gladiators before going into battle. According to an Associated Press story, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano called the cave-in a "disgrace for Italy," and he demanded an explanation.

Hmmm. He wants an explanation for the cave-in of the roof of a 2,000-year-old house, once covered in volcanic ash, damaged and partially rebuilt after World War II, drenched in heavy rain that didn't receive regular maintenance due to underfunding. Seems self-explanatory to me.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Pompeii several times. It is one of the most haunting places I’ve ever been — walking where the ancients walked, peering into their time-capsuled lives, seeing the looks of horror on their faces encapsulated in hardened ash, and looking up at Vesuvius still ominously looming over the site.

Although I am sad that this house caved in, I can’t say I’m surprised. Parts of the ancient city are always being restored or protected, and other parts are under excavation. And in fact, Daniela Leone, a spokeswoman for Pompeii's archaeological superintendence, said that given the number of buildings that need restoration, further damage is inevitable.

That’s unfortunate, but probably true. Earthquakes are not uncommon in the area; if an earthquake were to strike the region, Pompeii would probably be all but lost, given that few good, scientific relief maps exist of the site. Aging structures, heavy seasonal rains, tourist traffic and chronic underfunding of restoration efforts aren’t helping matters.

Pompeii is an amazing site. It would be a shame to lose it. But this event brought to mind a common debate: Where do you draw the line in terms of site preservation?

My husband, friends and I had the chance to visit many of the ancient sites in Italy and Greece last year, and one of the questions we kept pondering is: If we keep preserving sites, restoring sites, or — even more invasively — rebuilding and reinterpreting sites, is there a point at which we transform an important historical site into a tourist attraction? And if so, is that OK?

Personally, I’m torn. Preservation is necessary and fantastic. Restoration at face value seems pretty good. But how do we know what something built 2,000 or 4,000 years ago actually looked like? Archaeological evidence can only take us so far. Extrapolating upon that evidence allows our own bias to shape the reality for everyone else. At some point, do we leave it to our own imaginations to fill in the gaps? My travel companions and I took up this debate at multiple sites that had differing levels of restoration or rebuilding going on.

At Pompeii, restoration efforts seem to be more about simple excavations — digging out more buildings from beneath the ash — and then shoring up what archaeologists can with modern technology. I don’t think that crosses any lines, and efforts should continue where possible.

The Minoan Palace at Knossos on Crete in Greece is another story. The palace marked the center of Minoan power from about 2000 B.C. to 1350 B.C., until it was allegedly destroyed by a tsunami following the eruption of Santorini, as well as by subsequent fires. In the early 20th century, archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans began excavating the palace. Soon thereafter, he started restoring it. His intentions may have been good, but his restorations often reflected his unique interpretation of the palace — how he wanted to see it (as our Greek tour guide told us on the visit). And we now know that he did interpret some of the site incorrectly. So today, visitors see a range of historical accuracy, from carefully excavated ruins to fully reinterpreted ruins. It’s a little frustrating to be in a 4,000-year-old site, looking at wall paintings that really date back only to 1905.

With that in mind, I would pose this question: How do we today know that we are interpreting things correctly?

The Parthenon, a fifth century B.C. temple on the Acropolis in Athens, has been toppled and resurrected multiple times throughout its history. The original temple was razed by the Persians in 480 B.C. A new Parthenon was then erected as a temple to Athena in the middle of the fifth century B.C. and survived for almost a thousand years. In the fourth or fifth century A.D., it was converted to a Christian church, but the structure remained intact. In 1456, Ottoman Turks took over the city and converted the Parthenon into a mosque. In 1687, the Parthenon was blown up by attacking Venetians, who further desecrated the site by looting some statues, decapitating others and tearing down as much as they could.

Some of the site was resurrected following this, but then in the early 19th century, the British Earl of Elgin decided to “rescue” as many of the original statues, carvings and pieces of the building as he could. He brought those relics back with him to England; today, these “Elgin Marbles” — representing much of the exterior of the original Parthenon — are in the British Museum in London. The Greeks have asked for them back, and the relatively new (and really cool) Acropolis Museum in Athens has set aside wall space for the marbles once (if) they do get them back.

In 1975, the Greek government began restoring the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis. It has been a painstaking process: Archaeologists have pored through old pictures and drawings from the 1600s on to get a sense of how the building looked. To replace some pieces, they have also quarried marble from the same site as the original marble. Now, they are turning to computer modeling to figure out how to return individual pieces found scattered across the Acropolis to their rightful places.

The project has come a long way. Visitors today can walk all around a fully upright Parthenon — known as the finest and most perfect example of Doric architecture. As at Pompeii, walking where the ancients walked, looking at the brilliance of 2,500-year-old architecture looming high over Athens is an awe-inspiring experience.

But here’s where I get a little uncomfortable. We only have a couple of centuries-old drawings to approximate what this site actually looked like before its destruction. Some of the pediments aren’t even included in any of the drawings, so a lot of guesswork is involved in putting these thousands of marble puzzle pieces back together.

How do we know we’re getting it right? Is it enough for us just to be close?

And is it worth resurrecting this site and then shoring it up so it can withstand potential future earthquakes, pollution, tourists and rain — or does that cross the line into rebuilding and reinterpreting history?

My friends and I debated this, never reaching consensus. I don’t even know exactly how I feel about it. I love seeing these places. I would love to take my future kids there someday. But I certainly don’t want to take them to a theme park with people walking the ancient streets in togas and posing to take pictures with tourists (as, for example, “gladiators” do outside the Roman Colosseum — at least they’re not allowed inside the site).

I think I would want future generations to see the true remnants of such a historic site — even if those remains are just rubble on the ground. But even that rubble has to be saved somehow, or else the vagaries of time — weathering, natural hazards, tourists — will take their toll.

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