As an archaeologist, I was amazed, surprised, and delighted by Pompeii. Other sites may be bigger (Tenochtitlan, Mexico), have larger temples and pyramids (Moche, Peru), or more spectacular settings (Machu Picchu, Peru), but more is known and brings the city to life in Pompeii than anywhere else.
Archaeologists know a huge amount about Pompeii from inscriptions, objects and documents. We stopped and chatted with an international team (French, Spanish, Italian) excavating in the Necropolis of Porta Nocera and they showed us their work. They have uncovered three individuals, one under the wall and two in the funerary structure, including a woman who was marked by the small tombstone on the right, above. They now know her name and that it was a family burial plot for some time before the tomb structure was added. A man was buried near the woman and they believe it may have been a couple, but he did not have a marker to tell us his name. The archaeologists dig very slowly, removing narrow layers. We also saw all the digital gear that is now standard in excavations.
The level of preservation is a real knockout. The Villa of the Mysteries is at one end of the park. All of the house but its roof was preserved and the walls are decorated with complex mythological scenes. The wall art is painting or fresco.
There are more than forty houses that are named and visible, many with spectacular preserved wall painting like the Villa of the Mysteries above.
Three things I noticed in the elaborate houses–
People used a lot of painting to imitate decorative marble (R).
People often painted rooms very dark colors, black or dark red.
People liked trompe l’oeil painting (making walls look three-dimensional). There were a lot of skilled painters.
The villas are not all of the story at Pompeii. People fled, taking jewelry or a sack of coins, if anything. Thus, businesses and homes were abandoned completely furnished, bakeries had loaves in the ovens, horses were in their stalls, grapes and pomegranates on the vine. Everything was covered with volcanic ash so rapidly that their form was preserved even after the physical remains burned up. Scientists have identified the trees and plants in the gardens from casts of their carbonized roots.The casts of family members who tried to hide from the explosion are among the most poignant features of the site.
All food was farm to table back then. Each bakery had stones to grind grain to make flour, then they made and baked bread. Amphorae held oil, wine and even garum, the smelly fermented fish condiment that Romans loved. The artifact storage spaces hold hundreds of amphora, and countless others were removed from Pompeii over the years before the site was well protected.
I was impressed by the respect people at Pompeii had for their household gods. Most houses had a niche, a lararium, and these ranged from simple to glorious.
I knew that Pompeii would have great things to see. What I learned is that Pompeii has a lesson for great sites, it’s openly a work in progress. This has its good and bad sides. The good part is that as new buildings are restored and conserved, they are opened to the public, even when they are not yet on all maps and posters. We found this with the Taverna Hedones. Since I don’t read Latin, I don’t understand why the mosaic in its floor is a bear and the word “Have”.
You can spend two full days at Pompeii as we did and still not see all there is to see. It’s vast. You pass maintenance staff, people working on restoration at all levels, from measuring a pillar in a gated area to moving rock with mini-backhoes. There is storage of artifacts in some of the spaces along the side of the Forum. It’s not ideal artifact storage, but it shows some of the many amphora, casts, even a strongbox that used to be built into a Pompeiian house.
There isn’t room to hide anything backstage at Pompeii. Some areas are blocked with metal gates covered in images of the site. You have no idea how long it has been or will be like this. It all changes as it goes. If you are on a tour, your guide should know what’s available and you will barely notice streets and buildings that are blocked.
If you are on your own, and especially if you’ve done a bit of planning in order to see specific houses at Pompeii, you need to factor in buildings at Pompeii that are open at different times. Neighboring structures may be open at opposite times, requiring a visitor to pass the same spot twice at different hours in order to see both places. There are online lists of which houses are open and at what times and this can change at any time. It’s a tough place to keep together.
In 2014, a chunk of temple wall collapsed after heavy rains and there was a lot of ranting in the press about whether Pompeii was mismanaged. Everyone knew it was underfunded, so there was a lot of finger-pointing.
Today the funding situation seems to have improved and there is a master plan in the works (Grande Progetto Pompeii). Restoration is underway in several areas and there is general bustle. I like that. When we visited there were also interesting exhibits, one on Pompeii and the Greeks in the Grand Palestra and two smaller exhibits in the Antiquarium exhibit area near the gift shop. One exhibit was on looted items that have been recovered, including a section on fakes being sold as ancient artifacts from Pompeii. The second exhibit is on the House of the Golden Bracelet that is not presently open to visitors.
My personal gripes are small ones. There is only one cafe in the center of the city and it seemed like every time I wanted coffee we were at the other end of Pompeii. The other is that the gift shop isn’t very extensive, and not a single ball cap. I guess Italians don’t wear a lot of hats. I’ll end with a few more of my favorite images from Pompeii.