Lies Beneath in Pompeii Going Deep Yields
New Perspective on Ancient Roman City
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 28, 2004;
Italy -- For Pompeii's 2 million yearly visitors,
the overwhelming attraction is the captivating view
of daily life in the Roman Empire evoked by the
city's temples, taverns, houses and public baths,
and by its ever-popular brothels with their erotic
This summer, visitors might
be forgiven for failing to notice a series of newly
dug trenches at the southwest exit to the city.
The site looks like an example of below-street plumbing
in mid-repair, yet it provides a tiny glimpse of
a fact obscured by Pompeii's better-known association
with the imperial era: A non-Roman civilization
thrived here for three centuries, with its own temples,
houses, taverns, baths and saucy sexual practices.
Last month, a team of archaeologists
from Italy's Basilicata University uncovered the
remains of a structure built by the Samnites, a
mountain warrior people who conquered, inhabited,
built up and ruled Pompeii before Roman chariots
wheeled into town.
The diggers were looking
for something else -- remains of Pompeii's harbor.
Instead, they found a pre-Roman temple wall, clay
offerings to the Samnite goddess of love, and a
basin and terracotta pipes indicating the site of
a ritual bath.
The Basilicata researchers
were digging below Pompeii's surface because the
focus of excavations had changed. For the past 250
years, most excavation has concentrated on the Roman
city that was suspended in ash and stone by the
eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79.
Until the 1990s, local officials
believed constant discoveries from the Roman era
were needed to keep Pompeii in the news and to preserve
its spot as Italy's most popular tourist attraction.
But current administrators
say this approach has become counterproductive,
pointing out that they can barely afford to maintain
the scores of monuments already exposed along Pompeii's
lava-stone streets. As a result, only 34 acres out
of Pompeii's excavated 115 acres are open to visitors,
half the expanse on view 50 years ago.
The damage resulting from
these years of neglect is readily visible in the
dead city. Tourists pick up small pieces of marble
for souvenirs, plastic water bottles lie at the
feet of Roman columns and stray dogs roam the streets.
Thieves frequently raid the
sites. During the past 30 years, more than 600 items,
from frescoes to bricks, have been pilfered from
Pompeii. One of the worst thefts occurred in 1977,
when someone hacked 14 frescoes from a villa known
as the House of the Gladiators. And in January,
thieves cut two frescoes from the House of the Chaste
Lovers. (Pompeii houses are usually named after
prominent paintings, sculptures or other artifacts.)
Administrators suspect that some
guards participated in past looting, while local
criminal gangs have tried to bid on restoration
In any case, Pompeii's archaeological
superintendent, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, in office
for a decade, decreed an end to the expansion of
digs outward. He says digging down not only allows
him to spend money on preserving the already exposed
parts of Pompeii, but also is scientifically rewarding.
"By searching vertically,
one uncovers the full history of the city. The surface
Roman part is only part of the story," Guzzo
said in a recent interview. "Going deep doesn't
cost so much. It won't include restoration or opening
more area to tourism or hiring more guards."
Subterranean Pompeii may
not contain the luxurious villas and elegant sculptures
found on the surface, but for archaeologists trained
to perceive a universe in a clay shard, it is no
"Pompeii is a city which,
unluckily for it but fortunately for us, is best
known for being destroyed. In everyone's mind, it
is frozen at the moment of destruction, when it
was a Roman city," said Emmanuele Curti, the
chief archaeologist on the latest dig. "But
Pompeii was a city long before that, and it's good
to remind the world of that."