Friday, June 21, 2013

Pompeii - A Summer of Archaeology

This week, we’re in for a treat. We’re going to Pompeii.

No, this isn’t a piece about a timeslip novel. We’re going to hear about an archaeologist’s first-hand experience excavating in one of the most important, fascinating and haunting sites in the history of the Roman Empire.

I’ve travelled to many places, but Pompeii is one place I have not yet explored.

So, when I found out my colleague, archaeologist Andrea Williams, had worked for a summer at Pompeii, I asked if she would be willing to do a piece on her experiences.

Lucky for us, she agreed.


Pompeii street view from
city wall
It had been 1,920 years since Vesuvius’ most catastrophic eruption and I was buried alive three metres below ground in the ancient city.  

To be more specific, I was standing at the bottom of a deep stone-lined cistern in the ruins of a house in Pompeii. I had been lowered down there by the site director to investigate how the cistern connected to the house’s water system. I was a second year archaeology student on my first dig and I was loving every minute of it.

As an undergrad archaeology major at the University of Toronto, I needed to take a field school course to complete my program. There were local field schools I could have joined, 19th century homesteads and the like.  Craving something a little grander, I chose to go to Pompeii, the world's most famous archaeological city and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There's no way I could sum up my whole experience with the Anglo-American Project in Pompeii:
Peristyle garden excavation
there are just too many stories to tell. About 90 people joined the project in 1999, students and staff from all over the world. We lived in tents at Camping Spartacus for the whole season where we were fed a daily menu of cappuccino breakfasts, pasta lunches and wood-oven pizza dinners. The campground was located directly beside the Circumvesuviana train line. On the first night, while I was dozing in my sleeping bag, the ground started shaking and there was a thunderous rumble: I thought Vesuvius was erupting! It was just a train passing mere metres away from my tent.

It was my experiences exploring Pompeii and observing visitors that inspired me to pursue an MA in archaeological site management instead of specializing in the archaeology of any one culture or region.

Excavations along the
Via Narcissus
In Pompeii, we were followed everywhere by stray dogs. I picked up a decent Italian vocabulary quite quickly. We learned a lot about the physics and the chemistry of volcanic eruptions and about the 79 A.D. eruption in particular. As archaeologists, we became tourist attractions in our own right: we were photographed, videoed and interviewed about our work. We also got special behind-the-scenes visits to several archaeological sites in the Naples area.

Every morning and afternoon, the group would hike from the lower, modern town of Pompeii through the Porta Marina and the forum of the ancient city all the way up to the House of the Vestals at Porta Ercolano, where our excavation was centered.

Collapsed wall
And every evening, in the free hour or two between work and the dinner bell, I'd explore the ruins. My official archaeologists' permit allowed me to walk around anywhere, so I saw a significant portion of the city that's off limits to regular visitors.

There were so many questions that came to mind on site: how is it possible to care for an entire open-air ancient city like this? How can visitor access and site protection be balanced? How is it possible for visitors to understand such a large, complex archaeological site? What about the large unexcavated sections in the city - can these be exposed and studied even as so much of the rest of Pompeii is crumbling?

In a trench on the
Via Narcissus
That's me in my trench, which was part of the sidewalk on the Via Narcissus (a little angled street just east of Via Consolare). It turns out that my square was the spot where people dumped their broken pottery. I uncovered stacked-up sherds of the same vessels: someone had collected the smashed pieces, cradled them in hand and then placed them in the alley. Once the excavated soil was sifted and water-sorted, we also found tiny fish scales and bones, pieces of sea urchin shell, seeds and nuts. I even found a preserved beetle shell.

Copper alloy handle
My personal best artifact that summer was an ornate copper alloy handle. The beautiful green of the metal stood out clearly as I brushed away the gray-brown soil. I also found gorgeous iridescent glass gaming pieces that looked like turquoise and purple jellybeans.

Lead shot
In that alleyway, we uncovered evidence of the Siege of Pompeii by General Sulla in 89 B.C. This part of Via Narcissus is right up against the city wall: Sulla’s army must have set up their catapults just there on the other side. We discovered lead shot and volcanic stone ballista balls buried in the deeper layers of soil along the street. 

I know that the situation in Pompeii has changed since 1999. I heard that there is better wayfinding signage now and that more buildings have been opened for public viewing.  I also know that damage and decay of the walls, streets and other elements is continuing. [link:]

Copper handle
It was an important experience for me to be part of such a large team of like-minded students and academics when I was still getting an idea of what I really wanted to study. I learned how to excavate, classify artifacts and survey monuments but I also got myself some kind of direction for the future.  

Now, 14 years later, I’m working as an archaeologist in site management, not in the field but for the government. It’s not UNESCO level but I think it is important work nonetheless.

-Andrea Williams

For more information about the Anglo American Project in Pompeii visit:].

Be sure to visit Andrea’s website at:

I’d like to thank Andrea for sharing her photos and taking the time to tell us a bit about her experiences in Pompeii.

It’s definitely on my list of places to visit!

If you are an aspiring archaeologist, the Anglo American Project sounds like a brilliant way to explore and get to know this amazing place.

For those of you interested in dramatic representations of historical events, here is a link to Pompeii:The Last Day. This will give you a taste of the terror that it seems the citizens of that ancient city went through in its final days. Pyroclastic surge anyone?

Thanks for reading, everyone!

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