At Large  May 19, 2021  Sophie Hay

The Undiscovered Areas of Pompeii

Image credit: Sophie Hay.

Amphorae in the process of excavation in Region V (detail).

In a letter written to the Interior Minister of Italy in 1812 Caroline Bonaparte suggested that it would be possible to “…sweep away the pumice…” and “…see the whole of Pompeii uncovered in three or four years.” Today, despite two hundred years of relentless excavations since that letter was penned, one-third of the ancient city of Pompeii still remains completely buried under the volcanic material that surged down the slopes of Vesuvius in AD 79.

Image credit: Parco Archeologico di Pompei.

Archive image from 1911 of excavations along the Via dell’Abbondanza with building facades emerging from the volcanic material. The arches of the amphitheater can be seen in the distance beyond the unexcavated area.

Most visitors to Pompeii are unaware of the swathes of the unexcavated parts of the city but a glance at a map of Pompeii reveals two substantial areas within the city walls not crisscrossed by streets or marked with the outlines of insulae blocks and simply labeled as “unexcavated”. The boundary between the exposed and unexcavated parts of the site are defined by six-meter high escarpments revealing the cross-section of layers of compacted volcanic ash and tightly packed pumice stones.

These liminal areas have been the focus of attention in recent years and the surprising setting for a thrilling revival of excavation in Pompeii. Not since the 1980s has there been an archaeological dig that has broken the seal of the undisturbed layers of volcanic deposits with the hefty blow of a pickaxe.

Image credit: Sophie Hay

General view of the excavations during the stepping back of the escarpment in Region V.

The Grande Progetto Pompeii was established to address the issue of conservation across the site. One of the principal aims was to stabilize and consolidate the gradually eroding escarpments in Region V whose imminent collapse posed a severe risk of damaging the ancient structures below. Fortuitously, even stepping back the edges of the unexcavated area by a few meters revealed a series of wonderful discoveries.

Image credit: Sophie Hay.

General view over Region V excavations as the escarpment of the unexcavated area is stepped back to reveal the entrances to richly decorated houses.

The former Director General of Pompeii, Prof. Massimo Osanna, has drip-fed the public’s insatiable appetite for glimpses of these excavations by sharing candid images of the work in progress. For the first time the audience was able to watch the discoveries unfold in “real-time”. Evocative images of the destructive yet preservative nature of the eruption were shared with delightful regularity: doorways to houses with pumice stones spewing forth, delicate bronze candelabras with their stems elegantly and tantalizingly poking out from the volcanic debris, the haunting painted face of Leda gazing directly at her audience from the wall of a bedroom, and the tops of amphorae breaching the surface, their mouths open as if gasping for air.

Other discoveries re-opened old debates. On a plastered wall, scribbled in charcoal by an anonymous Roman hand, was written the date of October 17. No year was given and unwittingly its author caused astonishment and controversy amongst scholars. If indeed, as it has been suggested, it was written in AD 79 then it casted further doubt on the traditional date of August 24 for the eruption of Vesuvius.

Image credit: Sophie Hay.

Fresco of a partridge emerging from the pumice in the excavations of a house in Region V.

The discovery of a painted bar counter caused a sensation as its sides were unusually decorated with frescoes of mallards, a rooster, and a dog not quite straining at its leash. Sunken into the countertop were a series of dolia—ceramic containers used to store food or drink. Scientific analyses of the residual contents provided evidence that one had contained a fish and pork stew. Not only was this the first known evidence from Pompeii of hot food having been stored in the vessels but the presence of cooked meat contravened long-standing Roman laws on permitted types of bar food. A law-breaking barman had inadvertently been caught nearly 2000 years later.

Image credit: Luigi Spina/Parco Archeologico di Pompei.

Painted Bar Counter in Region V excavations with the dolia set into the counter.

Modern excavations are almost forensic in detail and advances in technology enable us to answer far more sophisticated and probing research questions. The wealth of information that has been lost in the rapid and poorly documented excavations of the past is incalculable. What Pompeii offers through its unique condition of preservation is an abundance of archaeological evidence for domestic life. It is this that has the most to tell us about the lives of the Romans.

It is of immeasurable relief that Caroline Bonaparte did not fulfill her ambitious plan of uncovering the whole of the city and that there are still twenty hectares of undiscovered Pompeii. With the inevitable development of technology and the possibility of more information being teased out from the remains, we should not be in a rush to excavate beyond the purposes of conservation and certainly not dig so fast that we lose that sense of wondrous joy at the surprises that surely await.

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