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News: Pompeii
View of Pompeii.
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by Archaeology Newsroom

Row between volcanologists and archaeologists over Pompeii’s ruins

Are excavations destroying valuable clues?

A conflict has broken out between volcanologists and archaeologists about the volcanic rocks being chipped away in order to reveal the city’s treasures and secrets, The Guardian reports.

Pompeii is the fifth most visited site on Earth, with 3 million visitors per year. After the House of Gladiators suddenly collapsed in 2010, the urgency of the site’s situation became obvious and finally led authorities to take action.

The Great Pompeii Project was initiated in 2012. Itis considered one of the most ambitious projects, aiming to transform a site neglected for centuries into a “peerless showcase,” according to National Geographic. It arose from an initiative of the Italian government, with the aim to enhance the effectiveness of the actions and interventions for protecting the archaeological area of Pompeii by developing a special urgent programme of conservation, maintenance, and restoration. It promises breathtaking discoveries about life in the Roman Empire, shedding light on the genetic profile of Pompeii’s inhabitants, their occupations and health, their preferences and habits.

Layers of volcanic rock are being removed. However, not everyone is happy about it. Volcanologists point out that the excavation is risky. It could destroy evidence about the eruption of 79 AD, clues which might be crucial about the protection of today’s 600,000 inhabitants living in the shadow of Vesuvius.

After years of tensions, a row has broken out between scientists. Volcanologists have published an open letter in Nature expressing their concerns about the “alarming” destruction of the volcanic deposits. “They seem not to realise that the enthusiasm for archaeology is committing an act of vandalism to volcanology,” Roberto Scandone, a professor of volcanology at the Roma Tre University, said. “Leaving some of the deposits in place is valuable not only for scientists but also for visitors, who will be able to see at first hand how the volcano destroyed the town.”

Archaeologists on the other hand say they are working together with volcanologists at the University of Naples and argue that there is plenty more volcanic rock for scientists to examine beyond the zone of archaeological interest.

DNA analysis of the eruption’s victims offers new clues about the ethnic diversity of Roman Pompeii, while food residues give information on the health condition of the population. However, earth scientist at University College London Christopher Kilburn believes that the reason Pompeii has been identified with disaster has been neglected. He says that there is a sense that volcanology is not being taken seriously. “You go to Pompeii and there’s virtually no mention of the volcano at all,” he points out.

According to Kilburn, professional volcanologists are not allowed to enter certain areas of the site for health and safety reasons. Which does not apply for the TV crews and media: “When something interesting is found, all the TV crews and media were there,” he says. The scientist underlines that preserving rock at inhabited areas is extremely important to help reconstruct the passage of pyroclastic flows: “Today we hope to use the archaeology to understand the details of how real pyroclastic flows sweep around real buildings, in order to improve methods of protecting future populations not only on Vesuvius but at similar volcanoes around the world.”

The Archaeological Park of Pompeii says the stratigraphy and destruction caused by the eruption is being jointly studied with the University of Naples, based on an agreement with the University. This agreement guarantees Pompeii access to volcanologists, according to the park’s spokeswoman.

Archaeologist Gary Devore points out that “The new excavations have been very limited in scope and location – just one small neighbourhood – and I think they are aiming to responsibly walk that tightrope between slow, meticulous, careful excavation of new rooms that can bring new public interest in the site, and conserving what they expose as they work as best they can.” As Pompeii is “big enough”, he hopes archaeologists and volcanologists can cooperate and respect the value of each expertise.

NOTES