BMCR 2004.03.35

Pompeii. Duckworth Archaeological Histories

, Pompeii. Duckworth archaeological histories. London: Duckworth, 2003. 160 pages, 12 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0715631616 £14.99 (pb).

There has always been a great fascination with the ancient city of Pompeii, from professionals and amateurs alike. The most recent offering dealing with the subject of Pompeii by Colin Amery & Brian Curran Jnr, The Lost World of Pompeii,1 has been reviewed recently (BMCR 2004.01.19), and provides an interesting general read on life in Ancient Pompeii. In contrast as Alison Cooley (hereafter AC) states in her Introduction that her book on Pompeii is not a guidebook nor a history of the town in antiquity but rather a history of responses to the ruins. The intention of the book is to promote an interest amongst visitors to the site in how their experiences belong to a continuum dating back to the mid-eighteenth century.

The book does not, therefore, provide a comprehensive history of the excavations; instead the author elects to examine a number of significant periods in which modern interpretation of the site has been influenced by politics, or advances in archaeological techniques and scientific knowledge. This results in some of the highlights of recent excavations in Pompeii being omitted, for example the ‘House of Meander’, and the ‘Villa of Mysteries’ with its controversial paintings, which may be disappointing for some readers. Nevertheless, these treasures and others can be read about in the plethora of other works currently available.

Chapters 1 (Prologue to the Nightmare) and 2 (The Nightmare Revealed) deal with seismology and vulcanology, two significant areas of scientific research which are providing archaeologists with fresh insights into the collapse of ancient civilisations, in particular the collapse of the Minoan civilisation in the wake of the Thera eruption. Also advances made in seismological studies enable archaeologists to re-define their agenda for investigation into the societies that were affected by these cataclysms.

In Chapter 2 AC discusses the role that the scientific investigations in vulcanology, especially with regard to the eruption of Mount St Helens in the USA in 1980, play in helping archaeologists/historians to assess the progress of the Vesuvian eruption itself. It seems on the basis of this new research that the destruction of Pompeii was not caused by the fall of pumice and ash, but by a highly explosive, pyroclastic activity, which has an impact upon the archaeological record. In this chapter AC provides a time-line and the present consensus of opinion regarding the archaeological record. AC cites as an example that in an alley off the Street of Abundance, recent intensive research has revealed a much more complex picture of the impact of the eruption upon the archaeological record. AC shows that it is no longer feasible to merely note the exact layer in which an artefact is found but that it is also necessary to assess the vulnerability of the artefact and the actual type of eruptive force that affected it. The scientific evidence has shown that various phases of the eruption each had distinctive characteristics and affected the fabric of the town in various ways.

Both chapters 1 and 2 contain well defined illustrative material showing the amount of repair work done in the city after the first eruption in 62 AD and findspots of bodies in the ash and pumice layers of the site.

Chapter 3 (A Broken Sleep) is perhaps the most significant chapter in the book, for it addresses the question of, to use AC’s expression, the Pompeian ‘dark ages’. It is often taken for granted that the site remained cocooned in its protective layer of pumice and ash from AD 70 until its rediscovery in 1748. However recent investigations have revealed that this is not necessarily the case, this in turn has implications for what we can expect to uncover.

Even after the initial fallout from the eruption there is still dispute about the extent to which life resumed some semblance of normality. AC cites in particular the tunnels and holes found scattered throughout the site, which have been interpreted as evidence that either survivors of the eruption returned to the site, and epigraphic evidence from the house of N. Popidius Priscus2 that shows Titus’ commissioners recovering property from the town. Furthermore a survey of literary sources from the period reflects some ambiguity and suggests that life returned to normal quite soon after AD 793 or emphasises the continuing desolation of the area.4 The evidence cited by AC in the first two chapters may go some way to resolving this dichotomy, for comparisons with the Mount St Helens volcanic eruption show that it may have been possible for the region around Vesuvius to have recovered significantly forty years after the event. Certainly the archaeological evidence for the area around Pompeii shows that signs of regeneration were taking place in the second century. A major road was built, and amphorae from warehouses excavated in the south of France indicate that the Vesuvian region had recovered sufficiently to be exporting wine by AD 124.

Chapters 4 (The Reawakening) and 5 (The Politics of Archaeology) assess the impact of contemporary politics upon the excavations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Unlike the book by Amery and Curran, AC puts this material into the direct context of the excavation’s history. Charles Bourbon’s patronage resulted in nothing more than a treasure hunt, designed primarily to enhance his international reputation and confirm his position as head of a new ruling dynasty in Naples. Suddenly the town of Pompeii became a ‘must’ for all those wishing to experience the Grand Tour, including royalty, writers, artists and the like. These visitors not only recorded their impressions of the site but may well have influenced the process of excavation. For example in order to impress important people, sudden dramatic ‘discoveries’ were made, and often these dignitaries left with an actual artefact as a memento of their visit.

During the nineteenth century the pace and direction of the excavations was very much linked to the political vicissitudes of the time: Giuseppe Fiorelli was appointed as director and adopted a more scientific and systematic approach to the excavations. From this moment onwards the town was viewed as a place with a history rather than a place of hidden treasure. AC in this chapter links Pompeii’s excavation history with the last two chapters, bringing the record up to date.

Chapter 6 (Probing Beneath the Surface) examines the current archaeological record for the site, and here AC scores points over other publications with an assessment of previously hidden gardens in the town, which she discusses in detail. This is extremely valuable in that it looks at the evidence for the many market gardens and vineyards situated within the town walls, providing a fresh appreciation of the economic and agricultural life of the town.

The final chapter (Probing Ever Deeper) looks at Pompeii in its pre-Roman phase, another area of research which has only recently appeared on the archaeological agenda. These agenda (the investigation of the green areas of Pompeii and the pre-Roman period) go some way to solving what has become a major concern over the future of the site. The inherent cost of maintaining the excavations already carried out plus the ever present threat of serious earthquakes mean that further expansion into fresh areas of the site, as well as being untenable at present, could also hamper rather than enhance its future. By digging down beneath already exposed areas archaeologists are able to answer relevant questions concerning the town while at the same time leaving areas for a new generation of archaeologists, who may be equipped with better excavation and scientific techniques.

Overall the book is well-presented and includes a glossary of technical terminologies, as well as a timeline of events relating to the destruction, rediscovery and excavation of the site. The illustrations, maps and photographs are well-selected and enhance the written material. The original source material is used appropriately and contextualised to allow the reader to make informed judgements without any previous familiarity of the subject matter. This book is a thought-provoking addition to the growing number of books on Pompeii and will be of great interest to professionals and amateurs alike, and especially invaluable to historians, who rely in great part upon the archaeological record. My only criticism is the cover design of the book, which does not do justice to the content.


1. Amery, C., & Curran, B, Jnr., The Lost world of Ancient Pompeii. With Introduction by A. Wallace-Hadrill. (Los Angeles: Getty Publications 2002).

2. VII.ii.20.

3. Florus 1.11.5.

4. Martial, Epigram 4.44 and Tacitus Annals 4.67.