It is considered one of the most ambitious archaeological projects in history. The goal of the Great Pompeii Project is to transform a site in grave disrepair into a peerless showcase by 2018 and beyond…and to construct a detailed, multi-faceted, almost photographic portrait of Roman Italy. In 2012 the site’s authorities received an emergency grant of 75 million euros (then about $100 million) from the European Union and another 30 million euros ($40 million) from the Italian government. Professor Massimo Osanna, a visionary archaeologist, was appointed Superintendent in 2014. He is employing an approach called “global archaeology,” which enlists an extensive interdisciplinary team of scientific, scholarly, and practical skills in the study of ancient sites.
Whereas only about 3 archaeologists had been working on Pompeii in the past, now there are more than 200 experts at work, including 12 architects and 12 archaeologists. The team also includes bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, painters, carpenters, photographers, dentists, anthropologists, radiologists, biologists, geologists, mapping technicians, computer scientists, medical engineers, hydro-engineers, and experts in art restoration.
Together they are restoring and analyzing the pioneering work of Giuseppe Fiorelli, a 19thcentury superintendent of Pompeii, who injected plaster into the blocks of ash that encased the dead, yielding evocative casts of their corpses. Today they use a resin instead of plaster because it is more durable and does not destroy the bones, allowing further analysis. The experts today are using advanced technology to compile precise genetic profiles of the victims—not only gender and age, but also where they were born and what occupations they held. They are studying food remnants for clues on eating habits, and they are studying restored houses and frescoes to piece together the daily lives of inhabitants. And they are collating medical findings with other data to construct a census of the vanished community.
What is emerging is an extraordinary portrait of the city and its citizens, which combines new discoveries with evidence that confirms former theories. Like New York and other modern cities, first-century Pompeii was a very dynamic community of multicultural neighborhoods and people speaking multiple languages. Osanna also says that lists of names have been found, and “many are recognizably those of liberti,” who are freed slaves with origins all across the Roman empire—Greece, North Africa, even Celtic Gaul. Pompeii was an affluent community of Roman citizens, naturalized foreigners and freedmen who became movers and shakers in international trade.
Pompeii could be a mirror of our own times in other ways as well. Their diets were similar to California today with staples of whole grains, including wheats, oats, and barley, accompanied by chickpeas, fruits, and nuts, accented by spices and delicacies imported from far-flung areas such as Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula. Yet the locals often lunched at “fast-food” restaurants in shops called thermopolia,”which had stone counters fitted with sunken terracotta vessels that contained pre-cooked meals.
The analysis continues and will yield more incredible findings. In the meantime, the Great Pompeii Project is also shoring up eroded facades and installing draining pipes throughout the site. Perimeter lighting and video surveillance has been installed throughout, as has wifi coverage. Exhibitions and events are now being held on site, and external accommodations have improved for the comfort of visitors.
Next time: Discoveries in 2018