Photo: Cast of Pompeii victim

When Mount Vesuvius erupted cataclysmically in the summer of A.D. 79, the nearby Roman town of Pompeii was buried under several feet of ash and rock. The ruined city remained frozen in time until it was discovered by a surveying engineer in 1748.

Photograph by Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

By James Owens

On a fateful summer morning in A.D. 79 Mount Vesuvius buried the vibrant Roman city of Pompeii—and many of its citizens—beneath tons of volcanic ash and debris.

"Darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a dark room," wrote Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the cataclysm from across the Bay of Naples.

The darkness Pliny described drew the final curtain on an era in Pompeii. But the disaster also preserved a slice of Roman life. The buildings, art, artifacts, and bodies forever frozen offer a unique window on the ancient world.

Since its rediscovery in the mid-18th century the site has hosted a tireless succession of treasure hunters and archaeologists.

"Pompeii as an archaeological site is the longest continually excavated site in the world," says Steven Ellis, a classics professor at the University of Cincinnati and the co-director of the Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabia.

"Because of this, what we find in Pompeii is that every step in the development in the science of archaeology was tested out in Pompeii—with mixed results," he says.

For early archaeologists the disaster of the city's final days was the primary draw, unearthing buildings and streets as they stood at the time of the eruption.

"Today we are interested in the development of the city," Ellis explains. "What was there first and how did it get to the point it was when it was destroyed?"

The People's Pompeii

Ellis's team is particularly interested in a corner of the city near the Porta Stabia gate that is a bit off the beaten archaeological path.

"It's kind of a lost neighborhood of the city. When they first cleared it of debris in the 1870s they left this block for ruin (because it had no large villas) and it was covered over with a terrible jungle of vegetation," he says.

Much research has centered on public buildings and breathtaking villas that portray the artistic and opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the city's wealthy elite.

"We're trying to see how the other 98 percent of people lived in Pompeii," Ellis says. "It's a humble town block with houses, shops, and all the bits and pieces that make up the life of an ancient city."

But while his quest is knowledge of the living Pompeii, Stanford University's Gary Devore, the project's co-director, notes that the eruption still resonates because of the intimate connection it created between past and present.

"We're digging in an area where a lot of Pompeians died during the eruption," he says. "I remind myself all the time that I can investigate in such detail this ancient Roman culture as a direct result of a great human disaster.

"At the end of a day of intense mental processing and physical labor, when the tools are being packed up and put away for the night, I often take a moment to remind myself of that connection with the individuals whose homes and workshops we're digging up," he says.

Preserving Pompeii's Past for the Future

Even after hundreds of years of work, about a third of the city still lies buried. Yet there is no rush to unearth these hidden Pompeii neighborhoods.

Today's great challenge is preservation of what has been uncovered.

Volcanic ash long protected Pompeii, but much of it has now been exposed to the elements for many years. The combined wear of weather, pollution, and tourists has created a real danger of losing much of what was luckily found preserved.

Yet Devore is hopeful for Pompeii's future.

"The current administration of Pompeii [under Pietro Giovanni Guzzo] has been incredibly diligent in focusing on preservation," he says.

Over his 13 seasons at Pompeii, Devore has witnessed great improvements in conservation and preservation of the priceless site.

"As an archaeologist, I'm part of that process in the way that I document what gets dug out of the ground," he adds. "Since archaeology is destruction, we destroy bits of Pompeii as we go along. So it's incredibly important that we record in great detail, with the ability to recreate what we've taken away afterward. That's how we're part of the conservation of Pompeii."

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