How were Pompeii and Herculaneum discovered?
For nearly 1,700 years, the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum – consumed by volcanic ash in the AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius – remained buried. Today, the sites are archaeological marvels and attract millions of visitors every year. Jonathan Wright charts the story of their discovery and excavation
Pompeii is a place with two histories. The first, the story of a bustling city, ended abruptly in AD 79 when the eruption of Vesuvius buried Pompeii in pumice and ash, and those who didn’t flee were overwhelmed by a pyroclastic surge.
The second of the two histories began in 1748, when Spanish military engineer Roque Joaquín de Alcubierre (1702–80) first dug at a site known locally as La Cività – the town – a name suggesting a lingering folk memory of what lay beneath. Although part of the site had accidentally been unearthed during building work in the late 16th century, it wasn’t until de Alcubierre’s excavations that the true significance of the area became clear.
Over the next few years, Pompeii started to give up its secrets, and its status as an archaeological marvel was secured. This was the Pompeii that would later become a staple of films and TV documentaries; a UNESCO World Heritage Site also encompassing Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata.
Why did de Alcubierre begin digging at Pompeii?
As to why de Alcubierre was prospecting, it was at the behest of King Charles VII of Naples (later Charles III of Spain). In 1738, the same year he began work on a palace at Portici, Charles employed de Alcubierre to excavate at nearby Herculaneum, another settlement overwhelmed by the eruption of Vesuvius. Many of the objects that de Alcubierre recovered as he tunnelled through – wall paintings, life-size statues in bronze and marble, and even scrolls – were destined for the palace.
But this wasn’t archaeology as we understand it today. The idea of systematically excavating and documenting a site had still to be formalised. While Charles was genuinely fascinated by the ancient world, he was also a collector – a privileged treasure hunter with ample means to indulge his passion. The early digs at Pompeii were thought to be disappointing, but from 1755, when excavations at a large property later dubbed the House of Julia Felix started, this perception changed. Showing a marked reluctance to share and, to be fair, likely worried about looting, Charles tried to keep the work at Pompeii secret. He banned the export of antiquities.
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How did the world learn about Pompeii and Herculaneum?
Charles’s attempts at distraction were largely in vain, in part because he himself commissioned the private publication of Le Antichità di Ercolano Esposte (Antiquities of Herculaneum Exposed), which between 1757 and 1792 built into an eight-volume collection of engravings of finds at Pompeii, Herculaneum and nearby Stabiae. While the books, whose publication was overseen by the newly formed Accademia Ercolanese (Herculaneum Academy), were given in limited numbers to select recipients, their influence was huge.
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A source of information and inspiration to designers, architects, artists and scholars, the books contributed to the rise of neoclassicism, a cultural movement rooted in the rediscovery of the ancient world. Increasingly, too, people visited Pompeii. It became an essential stop on the Grand Tour, the cultural jaunt around Europe often undertaken by upper-class young men – especially the British.
If this suggests that people were taking an increasingly scholarly approach to the ruins, that’s true. But it’s also true that the eerie presence of the dead has long been part of Pompeii’s appeal. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the ‘discovery’ of skeletons sometimes conveniently accompanied visits by VIPs while a popular exhibit in the local museum was for several years the imprint of a woman’s breast, outlined in the ash.
Who first made plaster casts of the dead?
But it was the technique of creating plaster casts, or calchi, first perfected by archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli (1823–96), that arguably did more than anything else to create our abiding fascination with Pompeii. Fiorelli realised that, as organic matter broke down, the imprints of people were left in cavities, which could be filled with plaster to produce a three-dimensional image of the unfortunate soul. All too often, we can see how their deaths would have been agonising.
The first recorded plaster cast made at Pompeii was not of a human body, but of a door. In 1856, the site’s director of excavations, Domenico Spinelli, wrote a letter in which he stated that a cast had been made of the item using the impression it had left in the ash.
The creation of the casts hints at more sensationalism, yet Fiorelli was a pioneer who established techniques for meticulously studying archaeological sites layer by layer. This reflects not only how archaeology at Pompeii was becoming more professional (in the 18th century, people working under de Alcubierre had criticised their colleague’s treasure hunting), but how researchers were developing new techniques at the site.
What problems do archaeologists face at Pompeii and Herculaneum?
Even in the 20th century, though, there were setbacks. Astonishingly, in August and September 1943, the Allies bombed Pompeii as they sought to force German troops to retreat. Several parts of the city (such as the House of Epidius Rufus, seen above) had to be rebuilt and the museum was hit. More recently, another calamity occurred in 2010, when the Schola Armaturarum, the gladiator barracks, collapsed. “We should all feel shame for what happened,” said Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano. The Grande Progetto Pompei, or Great Pompeii Project, set aside €105m to fund preservation efforts.
An area causing particular concern lay within the northeastern part of Pompeii. Here, it was the sheer mass of the unexcavated city that was causing problems as material accumulated during the eruption and in subsequent years – including the spoil from earlier archaeological digs – pushed against already excavated structures. To help relieve the pressure, previously unexplored areas of the site are currently being excavated.
There’s still much more that could be revealed. A third of Pompeii, an area of 22 hectares, remains buried, but for now the priority lies more in conserving what has already been found, especially as uncovering the city effectively removes a layer of protection.
That’s not to say new finds aren’t being made. In Civita Giuliana, a suburb located to the northwest of Pompeii, a villa has recently been excavated, yielding evidence of illegal tunnels. A reminder of why it is so essential to prevent such activity came with the discovery of human remains and, in the villa’s stable, three harnessed horses – yet more victims of the fury of Vesuvius.
Baiae: another Roman victim to volcanic activityDuring the first century BC, the town of Baiae on the northwest shore of the Bay of Naples started to gain a reputation as a fashionable holiday resort, frequented by members of high society. Emperors such as Nero, Hadrian and Septimius Severus later went on to spend time there, and Caligula is even said to have built a three-mile-long pontoon bridge from the town to the port of Puteoli to disprove a prediction that he had as much chance of becoming emperor as he did of riding a horse across the Gulf of Baiae.
The evidence of Baiae’s rich history is still to be found in the town, yet to get a fuller picture you need to go swimming. This is because bradyseism – the gradual uplift or, as in this case, descent of land caused by volcanic activity – has resulted in the Roman-era lower town disappearing beneath the waves, likely between the third and fifth centuries AD.
This is not perhaps surprising, given its location atop the Campi Flegrei supervolcano. In the 1940s, an Italian pilot named Raimondo Baucher spotted the ghostly remains of the lost settlement beneath the waves and snapped several aerial photographs. Aided by the development of new archaeological techniques, the area has since been extensively explored. It is now protected and patrolled by ‘mer-cops’, but visitors can go on guided scuba diving tours to see the ruins for themselves.
This article was first published in the October 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
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