de Alcubierre, Weber, Winckelmann, Paderni
is one of the catchword tenets of modern
archaeology; that is, as much as possible you should
examine what you find where you find it. The position of
artifacts in relation to one another and to the site as
a whole provides valuable information about ancient
cultures and helps scholars construct a context within
which ancient peoples led their lives. Aside from the
special case of underwater ruins, such as those at Baia, near Naples, no one
today advocates dismantling sites and moving ancient
artifacts—simply digging them up and shipping them off
to a museum somewhere for experts to work on. Such
persons would today be considered no better than the
tomb-robbers who have devastated numerous archaeological
sites around the world by plundering the contents bit by
bit to sell to the highest bidder. By this modern view
of archaeology, however, many of the great collections
in the museums of the world have been built up over the
years by unscholarly—even illegitimate— means. (Readers
may be aware that some nations are trying to bargain
with foreign museums to get back some of what was
"looted" many years ago. (Greece, for instance, wants
the "Elgin Marbles" from the Parthenon back from the
British museum.) (Also see this item on William Hamilton.)
excavations, both famous & infamous, of
classical antiquity in Naples.
From this modern archaeological
point-of-view, many say that the original excavations at
Pompeii and Herculaneum,
performed under the Bourbon dynasty in the mid-1700s
were a disaster. In the very early 1700s, slightly
before the arrival of the Bourbons, the exact locations
of Pompeii and Herculaneum were still unknown. That
changed in 1709 when one prince D'Elbeuf, a French
nobleman in Naples in the service of the Austrian army,
[Naples was an Austrian
vice-realm at the time] looking for a site to
build a villa (now called the villa
d'Elboeuf), heard that some farmers had found a
number of marble slabs in the ground, just there for the
taking. D'Elbeuf bought the property and started digging
for building material and dug down right into the
theater of ancient Herculaneum. He then plundered it,
taking no note of the original location of objects and
even indiscriminately breaking objects that he
considered of no value. Fortunately, two things stopped
him: Vesuvius erupted and
the Spanish Bourbons wrested
control of the kingdom of Naples from the
The new Bourbon monarch,
Charles III, put the excavations under the command of
Rocco de Alcubierre (1702-1780), a colonel in the army
engineer corps. At least some modern evaluation of
Alcubierre's work makes him out to be little better than
D'Elbeuf. A recent Italian TV program on Herculaneum
makes it seem as if the only thing Alcubierre was
interested in was digging up as many artifacts as
possible in order to present them to the king as
oversized trinkets to delight queen Maria Amalia.
Foreign contemporary commentary on the digs at
Herculaneum were particularly scathing. Johann Joachim
Winckelmann (1717-1768), the father of modern
archaeology, was on the scene and wrote:
This man [de
Alcubierre], who (to use the Italian proverb) knew
as much of antiquities as the moon does of
lobsters, has been, through his want of capacity,
the occasion of many antiquities being lost...
[Cited in Stiebing, below].
In 1748, de Alcubierre then
heard of other ruins further to the east and went
digging. He thought he might have found the ruins of
Stabiae, but inscriptions found in 1763 showed that the
ruins were indeed the fabled city of Pompeii. De
Alcubierre's team essentially "cleared" what they
could—not wantonly destroying objects, but simply, in
modern terms, "treasure hunting."
The modern approach
to archaeology came along in the person of Karl Jakob
Weber (1712-1764), a Swiss architect and engineer, who
joined de Alcubierre and who insisted on drawing
diagrams of everything and noting where each artifact
was located. He so irritated de Alcubierre by his
insistence on scholarship and precision that de
Alcubierre (at least, this is one story) paid his own
men to sabotage the timbers shoring up Weber's digs,
hoping for a cave-in. Weber's work is historically of
monumental value: as one example, he discovered—and
saved for future generations—the first ancient library
ever found, containing the famous Herculaneum papyri.
It was largely through his efforts that the rest of
Europe became aware of the physical remnants of
classical antiquity in southern Italy.
foundations for the study of the ancient world were laid
by Winckelmann whom Borstin [below] calls "The
prophet and founding hero of modern archaeology."
Winckelmann's influence in the fields of archaeology and
art history was far-reaching; he changed the way we now
relate to the great civilizations of the past. His Open Letter on the
Discoveries of Herculaneum from 1762 shaped the
perception that there was something amiss in the
excavations near Naples. That perception was expressed
by Grand Tourist Goethe in
his diary for 18 March 1787:
It is a thousand
pities that the site was not excavated
methodically by German miners, instead of being
casually ransacked, as if by brigands, for many
noble works of antiquity must have been thereby
lost or ruined.
is somewhat the tone of northern Europeans who
looked at southern Italian archaeological sites.
This includes Sir William Hamilton, who prided
himself on being a careful collector and preserver
of antiquity, but who also shipped copious amounts
of antiquity off to England, illicitly and over the
objections of Bernardo
Tanucci, the Neapolitan Foreign Minister.
Those artifacts that were not lost at sea (!) now
comprise the Hamilton Collection in the British
Museum. (There is a separate entry on William
Hamilton at this link.)
Through all of this, the stocking of museums-to-be
from that period seems to be driven by a certain
arrogance of power, as if the English, Germans and
French (during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt) were
somehow convinced that the by now totally decadent
southern Mediterranean peoples didn't really
understand what treasures they had, so it was for
the best if more enlightened peoples took care of
things—sort of an archaeological version of "the
White Man's Burden."
all the negative sniping at 18th-century Neapolitan
archaeology, Ramage [below] cites letters from
Camillo Paderni (1720-1770), Keeper of the Royal
Museum in Portici. In a letter written in 1754,
Paderni is obviously proud of the work done at
Pompeii, for example:
King] is always increasing his taste for
matters of antiquity, which he loves with the
zeal of the most passionate antiquary, for he
not only makes all the necessary trials and
inquiries in these cities which have been
covered by Mt. Vesuvius, but extends his
researches into other parts of his
kingdom...our miners have become with time
more perfect [and] none can execute better.
By his own words,
he filled room after room in the Royal Museum at
Portici with artifacts and cataloged them carefully.
I don't know that
there is a conclusion to be drawn other than that
good archaeology is something that had be learned.
Certainly, the study of antiquity is forever
indebted to Weber and Winckelmann, but it would be a
mistake to think that Charles III was a "casual
ransacker" of his own kingdom. He was (and still is)
widely regarded as an intelligent and capable king
interested in turning Naples into a true capital
city of a kingdom. That is why he built the San Carlo theater, for
example—not because he liked opera (he didn't), but
rather because a capital city should have a fine
theater. He went in for large, stately architecture,
as well, which is why he chose Vanvitelli and Fuga to build his new city.
Presumably, that is also why he installed a Royal
Museum in the palace at Portici—that is, because a
great kingdom should have a good museum to display
these newly found objects of antiquity. That is,
admittedly, not modern archeology, but it is careful
and methodical for its time.
- Borstin, Daniel J. The Discoverers.
Random House, New York, 1983.
- Parslow, Christopher
Antiquity : Karl Weber And The Excavation Of
Herculaneum, Pompeii, And Stabiae.
Cambridge University Press. 1998.
- Ramage, Nancy
H."Goods, Graves, and Scholars: 18th-Century
Archaeologists in Britain and Italy" in American Journal
of Archaeology, Vol. 96, No. 4 (Oct.,
1992), pp. 653-661.
- Stiebing, William H.
the Past. Oxford University Press.