The Problem With Pompeii

Thanks to an extremely effective tourism campaign and a whirlwind traveling museum exhibit, Pompeii is one of the most recognizable archaeological sites in the world. Located on the southwestern coast of the Italian peninsula, nearly 4 million people visited per year prior to COVID-19. However, an unfortunate by-product of Pompeii looming large in the public imagination is extreme resistance to the messy history of the ruins since the first excavation by Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre in 1748.

Early “archaeologists” like Alcubierre were not remotely interested in historical accuracy. They were interested in looting anything not nailed down for their patrons. In this case, the Spanish King Charles VII. A colleague of Alcubierre’s lamented the destruction, saying:

“[W]ithout first recording the inscription, they ripped the letters from the wall, threw them all together into a basket.”

Those bronze letters would later be used in a parlor game by Charles VII where he’d invite guests to use them like modern-day refrigerator magnet poetry to create their own phrases. With such disregard, it’s no wonder Pompeii quickly became a playground for the nobility and moneyed gentry. No Grand Tour was complete without a stop at Pompeii, though early visitors came away disgruntled at the lack of awe after so much hype.

Into this void stepped burgeoning capitalists like Sir William Hamilton who were determined to create in Pompeii a fantasy of the ancient world. The result was “Pompeii Mania” with Hamilton’s wife Emma the unwilling centerpiece.

“[…] Hamilton’s thinly veiled erotic habit of encouraging Emma to dress in Greek costumes for the purpose of entertaining their guests. In writing about his visit to the Palazzo Sessa, Goethe describes how Hamilton led him to a secret vault containing ‘his artworks and his rubbish’. There, sur- rounded by pilfered objects from Pompeii, stood a chest ‘standing upright, open in front, painted black inside and surrounded by a splendid golden frame’.28 This was indeed the concealed erotic centre-piece of Hamilton’s burgeoning archaeological collection – a low-tech Vesuvian Apparatus [false volcano] with the sole function of containing Emma’s body and transforming it into a moving representation of classical and Hellenistic imagery. Emma was not allowed to speak during the performances as Hamilton felt that her accent would reveal her abjectly lower-class origins and ruin the classical illusion. Thus, surrounded by recently excavated statues and vases still covered in Neapolitan dust, with the continual background eruptions of Vesuvius framed by a nearby window, Emma danced for her livelihood [for her husband’s friends and clientele].”

If watching a woman create a sexual fantasy of ancient brothels wasn’t a visitor’s cup of tea, they could always stick around for the nightly “eruption” of Vesuvius…a fireworks display visible from a traveler’s lodging.

By the 1820s, archaeological methods had not improved, with each week of work recorded in a single paragraph, oftentimes beginning with “not much of interest happened.” At the time, it was noted many structures that were buried had at some point been extensively salvaged for building materials. However, no one was curious about when that might have happened or where the stones had been repurposed, since only sculptures, art, and shiny objects were worth their time. Around this same time, aesthetic reconstruction also began, complicating future archaeological work. Wooden lintels were added, wall tops were leveled, and roof tiles were added. After all, the folks paying for their Grand Tour expected grand sights. These additions are clearly visible in Victorian Era photography of the site, with no mention that the buildings had been manipulated.

The pace of Pompeii’s destruction did not abate as the Victorian Era lurched towards the Edwardian Era. Drunken guests wrote graffiti everywhere (including some of the most famous “Roman” graffiti, hence why the colors are still so vibrant) and even pilfered pottery from which to drink wine.

“[R]ecent radiocarbon datation of grape pomace (Vitis vinifera), recovered in the storerooms of the MANN, placed this material in the modern period, probably to the XVIII century, at the time of the first excavations (D’Auria et al., submitted), thereby suggesting the need for caution in authenticating the finds”

There was also a “Disney-fication” of Pompeii. Educated in Bologna, Italy, Luigi Bazzani spent 35 years — from 1880 to 1915 — creating illustrations of Pompeii. Illustrations that, to this day, are used by archaeologists as visualizations of what Pompeii allegedly looked like before pollution and humidity stripped the walls of their vibrant color and decoration. However, a book from 1912 credits Bazzani with creating the decoration himself. Which tracks since the man’s first career was as a theater designer, with specialties in perspective (think the “forced perspective” of Disney buildings) and set design.

Meanwhile, a man named Giuseppe Fiorelli had discovered a way to capture the moment of a Pompeiian’s death, creating the haunting casts that are so well-known the world over. These powerful storytelling props have created narratives that tug at the heartstrings. There’s just one problem. Recent x-ray research indicates most, if not all, of these casts are faked.

“The techniques used for producing the casts in the 19th and early 20th centuries were not well documented and we have found that a number of the earlier casts were almost devoid of skeletal material but were reinforced with metal rods and brackets.”

As of this writing, no skeletal analysis from the casts has been done to test for DNA or radiocarbon dating. However, burials at nearby Porta Nocera have been studied. And the results surprised researchers by returning dates ranging from 1805 to 5570 years BP (Before Present) or approximately 3500BCE – 200CE. Of course, this research was completed before dendrochronology studies found a 218 year gap in the timeline, meaning those 200CE skeletons could actually have lived during 400CE.

In 1924, control of Pompeii as an archaeological site was passed to a man named Amedeo Maiuri, who would remain in charge until the 1960s. A man installed by Mussolini to further the fascist regime’s revisionist history to create the myth of Rome. Maiuri would undertake the most extensive “renovations” of Pompeii to date, resulting in the multi-story buildings that tourists walk through to this day (except for the ones rebuilt after being bombed during WWII).

“It is argued here that Maiuri’s writings as well as his museological practice in the reconstruction of Herculaneum as a ‘resurrected’ and ‘living’ Roman town, represent an attempt to further develop the affective aspect of the fascist doctrine of romanità. Maiuri, drawn to the ‘action not words’ of fascism, provided the regime’s propaganda with an inspiring example of what willpower, hard work and modern machines could achieve in the archaeology of the ‘New Italy.’”

Precisely nothing about Pompeii is “Roman” save some of the graffiti of indeterminable age. (Most graffiti off the main square is not written in Latin but in Greek). The city is pinned to the accepted chronology by the thinnest of premises. The “first hand” account by Pliny the Younger. Except the oldest dateable extant copy of that account stems from the 16th century when they were miraculously “rediscovered” though the letters themselves were never produced. Recent archaeological sleuthing places the eruption as happening in the autumn, likely October. Not the August date given by “Pliny”.

Then there’s the problem with the lack of volcanic evidence. Yes, Pompeii was buried during a Vesuvius eruption. Multiple times. But there is no evidence of an eruption of the size and force to complete that task in 79CE. With an alleged VEI (Volcanic Explosive Index) between 5 and 6, debris and tephra would have spewed upward and been picked up by the upper atmosphere to be deposited throughout the northern hemisphere. Specifically in Greenland, where climatologists have been drilling ice cores for decades to better understand the history of how and why climate change occurs. As the field has become more advanced, it turns out every volcano has a unique chemical make-up in its tephra. Like DNA but for volcanoes. There is no tephra layer to indicate Vesuvius erupted in 79CE or any date nearby. If the volcano had erupted with the force necessary to bury Pompeii, it would be there.

So if Pompeii isn’t an Iron Age settlement, what is it? That’s the mystery. If I was a betting gal, I’d put my money on it being Bronze Age and Minoan adjacent. There is a well-known and scientifically confirmable Vesuvius eruption in approximately 2000BCE. A date that corresponds with some of the oldest dates for those buried in Porta Nocera. In fact, in the early 21st century, a Bronze Age town was discovered near Pompeii. Completely buried by that eruption in exactly the same matter as Pompeii. Of course, this is merely one hypothesis. But until archaeologists are willing to push back against the stubborn but incorrect public perception of Pompeii as a “Roman” ruin, we’ll be stuck in the fog of history.

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