Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Pompeii Dig - Day 1

The big day finally arrived - the tour of the ruins of Pompeii followed by the first day's dig. Michael was so excited he awoke before 6 am in anticipation. We gathered for breakfast and then suited up with extra water, hats, sunscreen and cameras - yes, we looked like American tourists!

It was beastly hot so we started at 8:30 am hoping to avoid the worst of the mass tours. We started at the road of tombs on the outskirts of the ancient town. Gary explained the lay of the land and showed us things to look out for.

As we entered the town itself it became immediately apparent how big the town is and how although all the buildings are in ruins, the layout is basically intact. It is a small city with shops, houses, hotels, restaurants, gambling powers and brothels, basically frozen in time when it was covered with pumice from the eruption of Vesuvius. The city is laid out in an organized fashion with large stoned roads and raised sidewalks. The roads most traveled contain deep ruts, almost like train tracks, where they were worn by the carts.

The preservation was so complete that even some paintings remain on internal walls and political slogans painted on the outside of buildings. Note to expert photographers - these are Alex's pictures, not Michael's. His will be uploaded later.

POMPEII - Michael's side of things

At last, the day we have been waiting for – into the ancient city. As we walked the half mile or so to the entrance we noticed that even though it was only 8.30 in the morning, the day was already warm – 85 degrees. We entered thru a less used gate and began our tour. Roman law stated that burials were not allowed within the city walls, so along the roads leading to towns it was common place to find tombs lining the roads and Pompeii was no exception. (Romans engaged in cremation, so no bodies were placed inside tombs, just jars with ashes. Burials of intact bodies did not begin until the spread of Christianity.) Some of the tombs were quite elaborate.
We then entered the town’s gates. One of the first places we went was a small villa where a number of bodies we found. You have probably seen pictures of the plaster casts, so I won’t go into how the people actually died and how we know what their finally moments looked like. We continued on our tour, peeking into buildings with wonderful mosaic floors or frescos. As I said earlier, the upper floors were completely destroyed; some any houses we saw that had roofs were because they had been rebuilt.

Along one street we came upon a house whose front had been excavated, but the inside was still full of volcanic material, with more towering over it from behind. Nearly one third of the city that was within the ancient walls remains unexcavated. The primary reason for this is due to a lack of government funds, to maintain what has already been unearthed and to provide adequate staffing. Leaving the rest in situ means the treasures are better protected than they would be if unearthed and left to decay in the weather.
As we worked our way to the forum, we began to encounter the hoards. Like many popular tourist sites, people come on buses and walked around in large groups with lecturing guides. After a while this became a problem, as when you went to look at something only to find 40 people standing around it 5 deep so it was impossible to see the thing!
There continues to be great debate about why the buildings in the forum were found in the condition they were. In 62 CE, Pompeii was struck by a large earthquake – and presumably many after shocks. Some people think the forums buildings were badly damaged in the quake and were still under going restoration 17 years later when Vesuvius erupted. Others think that Nero was putting a lot of money into the town to upgrade early simple buildings to nicer facilities (Nero’s second wife was from the region). We will probably never know.
I’ll add an aside here. It is probable that the earthquake broke a cap deep underneath the volcano that had kept the magma in place for centuries. This began a process of the magma working its way to the surface, eventually reaching a weak point and blasting thru. It seems to me that Pompeii was doomed from the moment of the earthquake, but they didn’t know it. Although the Romans knew what volcanoes were, they did not have a science to study volcanoes. And thus they went about daily life not knowing of the time bomb building under their feet every day.

After the forum we went to a small shaded area and lunch was brought in. We were grateful for the shade as the temp was now in the low 90’s.
After lunch we made our way to the area where we were going TO DIG!

The project was created to explore the city below its 79 CE surface as a way of learning about how the city evolved since its founding. (Pompeii was ~ 500 years old when destroyed.) A site was chosen just inside the Stabi gate. This area had been undergoing s transformation from an “industrial” area to a commercial one of shops and residences at the time of the eruption. It was a modest neighborhood and little of interest had been found in the initial excavation so the authorities gave permission to excavate below the 79 CE floors.
The site had been cleared of the volcanic debris in the early 20th century. Those folks left some sketchy notes about what they found, but since they were still little better than treasure hunters they moved on. The Stanford project has been working for 5 years to dig in 5 insulas (a multistory residential building) and see what they could find. Our area was in one of those buildings, all the way in the back, where the previous work had found a triclinium (a U shaped dining coach) and some unknown “water features”. (For those interested, the back wall of our building backed on the area now know as the gladiator barracks, a nice open space used by gladiators for training.)
Our work would progress in phases. The first was to remove 100 years of build up to get back to the 79 CE level. The second would be to remove the 79 CE level and see if we could learn the developmental history of the buildings prior to that. Trowels at the ready, we prepared to get dirty!
We were broken into teams and assigned various areas. I was to be part of a team of 5 assigned to start at the wall and work our way to the front of this back room. Myself and another fellow named Mike started digging with shovels while the others formed a bucket brigade to carry away the debris we generated. In a matter of minutes, Mike and I made a grim discovery. In the early 20th century, the corner against the wall had been used as a dump for construction debris, probably from work done to improve the appearance of the barracks next door. We were soon digging up large pieces of tiling, stray rocks and just trash. I found at least a half dozen intact small glass bottles that had to be 100 years old.
It took an hour of hard work to clear out the trash before we hit enough dirt to get out our trusty trowels (TT). We worked from the wall to a still standing column that appeared might be at the intersection of a couple of (now) low standing walls.
Working away, my TT went clunk against something different than the rest. Working slower, I began to clear away a different kind of stone. Gary happened to be standing over me and told me stop and ran to get a brush. Handing it to me he told me to clear away the rest of the dirt. And there was a piece of marble about 10 inches long with a clear depression in it. Clearing out the depression it turned into a perfectly carved hole, about ¾” deep and 3 inches in diameter. Gary got very excited and called everyone over to see what I had found – The anchor for a post that supported a door. The first important find! WOO HOO. I’m a star!! – for about 10 minutes.
As my stone was directly across from the column, Gary said that I should be able to find a threshold that would have run between the walls and the column. Digging out several inches down between the two I find – nothing. Disappointment. Gary wanders off to see how the others were doing. Has my moment in the sun had passed?
The space I was working in was about a foot and a half away from the outer rim of one of our “water features” so I moved over there and began to clear away the space between the rim and the column, while the rest of the group cleared the other side of the outer rim and began to dig out the feature itself. Digging deeper I moved slowly back to the column and the space where the threshold should have been. After about ½ hour I was back at the threshold about 8 inches deep than my first try. TT goes clunk. Slowly but surely a stone wall begins to emerge, my missing threshold! I bring Gary back and we puzzle over why the remains of the threshold are so much lower than the marble support for the door post, without reaching a conclusion.
Continuing away from the column, moving toward the tall back wall, I quickly find a rough surface of badly deteriorated concrete – the underlying base of a floor that would have probably had a plaster surface. I clear out 4 or 5 square feet of this floor before Gary calls an end to our first day of digging. The other groups have also had some success. The triclinium is clearly taking shape, another smaller “water feature” has been confirmed at the other end of our space and the remains of walls for several rooms have begun to emerge.
Over the course of the afternoon, some of the graduate students wander over in curiosity to see how the amateurs are doing. They are impressed with our progress, to which I remark to one of my fellow companions, “Yes, it’s amazing what a bunch of over eager amateurs can accomplish when they don’t know how to pace themselves in this heat.” (I guess I should note here that for the most part our site is in the shade of two large trees. Trees that will be both a blessing and a curse over the next couple of days.)
We walk back to the hotel, my digging companion Mike and I talking. When we reach the hotel we find both of our wives sitting in the lobby talking. They take one look at us and horror spreads across both their faces – we are really and truly disgustingly dirty! (You should have seen the looks on the faces of the hotel staff as well; all the furniture in the lobby is covered in fine white linen!) DO NOT touch anything the wives say, not even the room key. Go straight to the shower, do not pass GO, do not collect $200.

After dinner, we retire, very tired.

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