Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews     entry 13 May 2016
  Pompeii- Consolidated page -


This page consolidates all entries having to do with the archaeological site of Pompeii. There are, as of May 13, 2016, twelve entries going back to 2002 and are here below in chronological order. The entries are still in the pages separately, but they are not linked from the general index.

entry Dec. 2002
Pompeii  

The National Archaeological Museum is planning a major exhibit for January on the great eruption of Vesuvius in 79 a.d. that destroyed Pompeii. Unexpectedly, they will have something new for the exhibit —the skeletal remains, uncovered the other day, of a slave. 

Archaeologists from the Japan Institute of Paleological Studies in Kyoto were working in the area of the presumed location of an ancient gate that led out from the city of Pompeii in the direction of Capua. The exact location is uncertain and has been the object of archaeological speculation for some time. 

In the course of digging around, the team came across the remains of a male skeleton with a metal ring on the leg, showing where he had been chained at the calf. It was a common Roman punishment to keep unruly slaves chained at night so they couldn't flee. The skull shows evidence of having been crushed. Presumably, then, he was not suffocated by noxious fumes or overwhelmed by the flow of volcanic debris; he was probably struck by a heavier projectile thrown up by the eruption. The eruption occurred just after dawn. Still chained in place, he couldn't run. 

Here, one thinks of Mark Twain's grand paragraph from The Innocents Abroad:

But perhaps the most poetical thing Pompeii has yielded to modern research, was that grand figure of a Roman soldier, clad in complete armor; who, true to his duty, true to his proud name of a soldier of Rome, and full of the stern courage which had given to that name its glory, stood to his post by the city gate, erect and unflinching, till the hell that raged around him burned out the dauntless spirit it could not conquer.


[Read MT's complete passage about Naples from The Innocents Abroad.]

Courage is a function of choice, and, certainly, the soldier so described was courageous— heroically so. Our recently-found slave, of course, had no choice. Yet, there is no way to know how he behaved at the end, even chained as he was. "Unruliness" —especially in a slave— is not necessarily a defect of character. There was a second skeleton, that of a woman, found close by. Who knows if or how he might have tried to shelter her? Or she him.



entry Dec. 2002            

Mummies, Evil Spirits & Pompeii

In 1932, Universal studios released a prototypical horror film called The Mummy. It starred Boris Karloff and was magnificently eerie, much better than the slew of potboiler imitations that followed. It was a film loosely generated by popular buzz of the day surrounding the curse supposedly attached to the tomb of King Tuthankhamen ('Tut', for the tongue-tied), discovered (or desecrated, depending on whether you are an archaeologist or an ancient Egyptian) in 1922 by two Englishmen, Howard Carter and George E.S.M. Herbert, fifth Earl of Carnarvon. In the antechamber of the tomb they found a plain clay tablet on which were inscribed hieroglyphics reading, "Death will slay with his wings whoever disturbs the peace of the pharaoh." Within seven years, 22 persons involved with the discovery and excavation of the tomb had died untimely deaths. 

In Naples, we may have material for another film. It is not uncommon for the superintendent of the archaeological site at Pompeii to come to work and find envelopes and small packages containing bits and pieces of antiquity, items from the ruins of Pompeii, pilfered and then sent back by sticky-fingered tourists haunted by remorse.

But are they haunted by something else? Could be, because sometimes letters accompany the booty. Some time ago, a package arrived full of objects stolen from Pompeii. It was from Valencia in Spain. The penitent thief claimed to have had nothing but terrible luck ever since he swiped the objects. He lost his job and was then plagued by family problems; the sender was convinced that he was the victim of a curse put on the objects two thousand years ago by devious citizens of Pompeii who wanted to protect their belongings down through the ages.

The superintendent has had goods returned from as near as Castellammare and as far away as Poland. The senders' names and addresses are usually bogus, but a number of them contain letters with the same general message: "Bad luck ever since I took the stuff. Please take it  back. Release me from the curse." The good superintendent, of course, refuses to pronounce judgment on such things as ancient curses, but if it gets his stuff back, who is he to tell you what you should or shouldn't believe? 

Personally, I think that the people who sell tissues, wash your windshields and hustle cigarettes at traffic lights in Naples are missing a golden opportunity. In a city where astrologers and soothsayers openly advertise, and where everyone in my family, including me, believes in the evil-eye, why not put curses on personal property? Cars, for example. It would be a symbolic way of saying, "Death will slay with his wings whoever touches my wheels." Maybe a brief incantation at the stoplight, then a quick exchange of a euro or two for an amulet, possibly in the image of Boris Karloff, with an adhesive backing so you can slap him up there on the dashboard right next to whatever other medallions you happen to have protecting you. Sort of a double-whammy.

Added bonus: if your car is tampered with in the middle of the night, ancient curses don't go off with that annoying waah-waah-waah burglar-alarm siren that keeps you awake all night. There's just this single, long, blood-curdling scream. It might be a pleasant change.


Other items on good & bad luck, superstitions, magicians, fortune tellers, etc:   (1)  (2)  (3)  (4)  (5)  (6)



(Dec 11, 2011 ) I'm not sure why anyone would think this is a good idea; that is, to build a theme park replica of the ruins of Pompeii in the eastern part of the urban sprawl that is Naples. That was the plan being oohed-and-aahed over the other day at a conference held in the Gambrinus café. It would create 50,000 jobs what with all the construction of "PompeiWorld" (the asinine name being proposed —I'm holding out for Pompeii Two or Pompeiissimo! ) plus all the secondary facilities such as new hotels and so forth. There are some precedents for constructing replicas of ancient and historical sites: for example, to keep tourists from damaging the Lascaux Cave in France, an accurate replica for visitors was built; also, the Getty Villa museum in California is a replica of an ancient Roman villa excavated in Herculaneum. (I'm not counting The Venetian hotel casino in Vegas where you can take gondola rides, poled along by some California surfer-dude singing Neapolitan folk-songs!) But, still, "PompeiWorld" would be only a few miles from the real thing! Since there is no plan to close the real Pompeii to protect it from mass tourism, what's the point? Yes, they say, but the theme park will also provide educational facilities for archaeology and vulcanology (which, of course, they could build anyway at the real Pompeii). And speaking of things Vulcan, are they going to build a replica of the Great Ruin Maker, Vesuvius, himself, maybe half-scale, but timed to erupt for the tourists, covering them with styrofoam pumice and ash? Maybe I'm missing the big picture. (My thanks to Larry Ray for pointing this item out to me.)


  • (April 6, 2014) - Pompei is the second most visited archaeological site in Italy after the Colosseum in Rome. As such, it is subject to quite a pounding, all in addition to the natural ravages of time. The site is, quite naturally, on the UNESCO World Heritage List and last year received 50 million euros from the European Union to help finance a conservation project. None of that has helped in recent weeks as there has been an almost daily rash of crumbling of various bits and pieces, large and small. Now, the Italian aerospace firm, Finmeccanica, which provides advanced electronics to the military, has said it will donate technology for a project called "Pompeii: Give it a Future." The technology includes upgrades to security systems and satellite monitoring in order to assess "risks of hydrogeological instability" at the 44-hectare site (108 acres); the project is expected to last three years.



(May 6, 2015 ) - Word comes from various sources on the successful restoration and presentation of some frescoes and mosaics in the Villa of the Mysteries at the archaeological site of the ancient Roman site of Pompeii. The treatment involved the use of the antibiotic amoxicillin to treat a strain of streptococcus bacteria that was gradually destroying the original pigment of the frescoes. Restoration also involved the use of lasers to remove dirt from surfaces soiled from the old excavation of the site in the early 1900s. The restoration began in 2008 and some of the results were displayed in March of this year. Additional work continues on a portion of the site that collapsed in 2012 during a rainstorm. The Villa of the Mysteries probably derives its name from what some scholars says are representations of the rites of female initiation to marriage. The villa is one of more than 100 such structures discovered in area of Vesuvius. They were built beginning in the second century BC up to the mid-first century AD and are in what is called the "second style".





(May 24, 2015) - At Pompei work is almost completed on the restoration of 86 plaster casts of the remains of persons who perished in the famous eruption of Vesuvius of 79 AD. Some of them are already known since they were uncovered in the 1800s. This display, however, will be part of an exhibit set to open on May 26 as "Pompeii and Europe 1748-1943." The first date is of the initial re-discovery of the buried city under the Bourbons and king Charles III —the beginning of the scientific rediscovery of Roman antiquity in the area. The second date is the year before the last eruption of the volcano, which took place in the middle of WWII. The victims were swiftly buried in hot ash and apparently died almost instantly. Modern X-ray techniques, indeed, reveal intact skeletal structures preserved within a natural case of pyroclastic materials through the centuries, thus making it possible to make plaster molds.
(photo, la Repubblica)



(July 25, 2015)-One Small Step for a Bow-Bow. Pompeii is second only to the Colosseum in Rome as the most popular tourist site in Italy, year in and year out. I don't know how the tourists do it. Both sites are on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and both are worth seeing, but I can think of no other place in the nation that ambushes cash-laden clients with such an array of inefficiency, chicanery and corruption as does Pompeii. Barely a day goes by that you don't read of this-or-that many hundred tourists waiting in vain for the place to open, or even of being locked inside while the staff goes on strike —or to lunch— which is pretty much the same thing. It usually takes a threat by UNESCO or other European holders of the euro-strings that the whole damned place will be removed from the list unless it shapes up. Then, maybe, something gets done. That is what happened here, and it seems to have done some good.

In this case they have restored and reopened for public view the famous mosaic of a dog on the premises of the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii. The mosaic bears the inscription cave canem—beware of the dog. Astute paleo-bowserologists are divided over whether this meant, Pwease don't step on widdle poopsum or, possibly, Amicus, if you step on Lothar, the Wonder Shredder, you will never believe that you ever owned a leg. In any event, the mosaic has somehow become iconic of the Pompeii site, and you now can get in to see it again.

The House of the Tragic Poet was discovered in November of 1824 and has interested scholars and writers for generations. The size of the house itself is not remarkable but the interior decorations of scenes from Greek mythology are numerous and of high quality. They are remarkable. They have inspired poetry and fiction, among which is Lord Edward Bulwer Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii (O he of "It was a dark and stormy night." Talk about tragic.) 
-thanks to Jeff Miller for bringing this item to my attention.  

(Aug 8, 2015) - The July/August on-line edition of Smithsonian Magazine contains a fine article by Joshua Hammer entitled "The Rise and Fall of Pompei". The lead is

The famous archaeological treasure is falling into scandalous decline, even as its sister city Herculaneum is rising from the ashes [...] On a sweltering summer afternoon, Antonio Irlando leads me down the Via dell'Abbondanza, the main thoroughfare in first-century Pompeii. The architect and conservation activist gingerly makes his way over huge, uneven paving stones that once bore the weight of horse-drawn chariots. We pass stone houses richly decorated with interior mosaics and frescoes, and a two-millennial-old snack bar, or Thermopolium, where workmen long ago stopped for lunchtime pick-me-ups of cheese and honey. Abruptly, we reach an orange-mesh barricade. "Vietato L'Ingresso," the sign says-entry forbidden. It marks the end of the road for visitors to this storied corner of ancient Rome.

Just down the street lies what Turin's newspaper La Stampa called Italy's "shame": the shattered remains of the Schola Armaturarum Juventus Pompeiani, a Roman gladiators' headquarters with magnificent paintings depicting a series of Winged Victories-goddesses carrying weapons and shields. Five years ago, following several days of heavy rains, the 2,000-year-old structure collapsed into rubble, generating international headlines and embarrassing the government of then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The catastrophe renewed concern about one of the world's greatest vestiges of antiquity. "I almost had a heart attack," the site's archaeological director, Grete Stefani, later confided to me.
The entire article is available here.




( Sept 22, 2015) - Pre-Roman era tomb discovered at Pompeii. In spite of the difficulties of doing archaeology at Pompeii (noted here and here in two recent entries), this second most visited archaeological site in Italy (after the Colosseum, in Rome) continues to reward researchers. With most attention going deservedly to preserving Roman Pompeii, we forget the layers that lie beneath, from the days before mighty Rome existed. The Jean Berard Center in Naples has now announced the discovery of a well-preserved Samnite tomb at Pompeii. It contains a woman's skeleton and many amphorae. The Samnites were ferocious enemies of the Romans; they fought each other for centuries for control of central Italy, with the Samnites eventually succumbing in 100 BC. At one time, Samnite influence extended from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenean and included the area where Roman Pompeii would later stand. This particular tomb is from the fourth century BC. The Jean Berard Center in Naples has served since 1966 as a "Documentation Center of historical research on Southern Italy", "a research platform for French and Italian teams working in Southern Italy and Sicily with a focus on Magna Grecia generally the Greek colonization in the West. The center's current facilities in Naples include equipment depots, specialized laboratories,  a library and as reception space for visiting researchers.  
    
[Thanks to Jeff Miller for calling my attention to this.] 



(Mar 23, 2016) - New Itinerary at Pompeii - Myths and Nature: from Greece to Pompeii is the name of a new joint exhibit now open at the Naples Archaeological museum and the archaeological site at Pompeii, itself. The museum side will host 100 archaeological finds at the Sala della Meridiana (the Hall of the Sun-Dial) and focus on landscapes, gardens, and the semiotics of nature—that is, the signs and symbols in nature. The itinerary at Pompeii will present five newly restored Domus (that's the plural but also the singular). In ancient Rome, the domus was the type of house lived in by the upper classes. We might just call it a villa, except that a true villa was outside the city walls or limits and was much larger. The domus was a luxury home within the walls or city, itself. The emphasis is on the green spaces, the gardens that residents created for their domus as well as on the frescoes and objects that decorated the interiors.


(Apr 10, 2016) - The Pompeii Antiquarium (pictured) has reopened. Many archaeological sites are giant outdoor museums, themselves, but many of them also have indoor museums to go along with them. Pompeii was one of those. It opened the Antiquarium in 1861 and for many years it was renowned for its displays, including the plaster molds of victims from the eruption that destroyed the city in 79 a.d. The museum was destroyed by bombing in WWII but managed to reopen in 1948. It was then closed in the wake of the Irpinia earthquake of 1980 east of Naples, which rendered a great number of buildings well beyond the immediate area unsafe. (The earthquake was centered 80 km/50 miles to the east.) The museum has reopened with the latest in modern audio-visual displays, a bookshop, and all the amenities for those who are tired of slogging through the site in the summer heat. It features a permanent exhibition dedicated to the places of worship in pre-Roman Pompeii.


(Apr 12) - Speaking of Pompeii: Giuseppe Fiorelli (pictured) (Naples 1823- Naples 1896) is best remembered as the inventor of the process for making plaster casts of the victims of the famous eruption. That process was to pour plaster of Paris into the cavities left after the corpses of the victims covered in ash had rotted away, thus producing plaster replicas of their positions at their final moment. That revolutionized archaeology at Pompeii because you can use the same process for any organic object, such as pets and even wooden tables and chairs. You can build up a picture of the way the people lived. It strengthened the position of those who felt that sites should not be broken up and items simply moved away for study (which had been the norm) but studied as much as possible on-site, now the accepted approach. Fiorelli did the first large-scale precise mapping of the Pompeii site, cataloging and ordering everything and is responsible for eventually opening the site to visitors. He held various posts in his lifetime: Professor of Archaeology at the University of Naples, Director of the Archaeological Museum, Director of the excavations at Pompeii; as well, he founded the Archaeology School at Pompeii, which then became the Italian School of Archaeology. He founded archaeological journals and also founded the San Martino Museum in 1866.



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