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Artefacts to be swapped for copies after Pompeii thefts
By Bruce Johnston in Rome
(Filed: 16/11/2003)

Italian authorities are so alarmed by a spate of thefts from the ruins of Pompeii that they are planning to remove to safety "all the antiquities not nailed down".

Some of Europe's most important Roman mosaics and other decorations - including ancient storage jars, capitals and columns - are to be replaced with copies to protect them from thieves operating out of the neighbouring crime-ridden city of Naples.

Officials are drawing up a list of the most easily removed items from the open-air site - where security is notoriously lax - and plan to move them to museums and stores after the third serious break-in in six months.

In the most recent case, thieves removed the stonework of a first-century AD Roman well, weighing 150lb, from one house during the night. The entrance to the building was found to have been forced, as were the entrances to two others - from which nothing was taken.

Renato Squitieri, a senior culture ministry official sent from Rome to handle the emergency, said: "We will look after the treasures of the ancient city by keeping them in safe places."

Officially, the plan is for the temporary removal of artefacts until the ancient city's shambolic security system can be improved. But once the antiquities are put into storage, officials privately admit that many of the most valuable items are unlikely to be returned.

Instead, Pompeii's three million visitors a year will find the site - buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 - stripped of many of its original archaeological features.

Although some of Pompeii's most valuable treasures are already stored away from the clutches of the Camorra - or local mafia - in the celebrated Naples archaeological museum, the new approach will be far more sweeping.

A Pompeii official said that the plan was "eventually to remove everything that is not nailed down and replace it with good copies".

A mosaic of Alexander the Great is already being copied for this purpose. Critics within the government-controlled body which manages the site fear that the same philosophy may soon be extended to some of the more important frescos.

"It seems that the days of Pompeii's romantic abandon are over," one official said. "Its main importance should be its human dimension, an inhabited place which was overrun by an eruption but still has the atmosphere of a place where people lived. Will it lose its soul if everything old is taken away?"

Two previous break-ins resulted in sensational thefts: in April, thieves working undisturbed in the night managed to hack out and make off with two frescos from a building known as the House of the Chaste Lovers. To the relief of experts, the frescos were recovered in a nearby building site - where they lay carefully packed, apparently ready for shipment abroad.

A fountain similar to the well was earlier stolen from the House of the Ceii. Since the fountain disappeared, CCTV surveillance of the perimeter of Pompeii's 45-hectare site has been installed - but it has been out of order for nearly a year following a suspicious fire.

A sophisticated alarm system is now being planned to protect the interior of Pompeii's 30 most important houses, but the installation of the system has yet to begin.

9 April 2003: Police recover frescoes stolen from Pompeii