The eruption of Vesuvius and the history of the archaeological excavations

The eruption of Vesuvius
In 62 AD, a violent earthquake damaged the buildings of Pompeii, but no one suspected that this event indicated a new phase of volcanic activity from Vesuvius, which had been dormant for over 300 years.
Tremors of lesser intensity led up to the 24 of August, 79 AD, when without warning the Volcano shook, and its mouth opened in the beginning of a violent and explosive eruption. A column of gas and ashes spewed from the volcano, rising to enormously high altitudes. The heavier material, including great quantities of pumice, began to fall to earth. Meanwhile, the column erupting from the volcano produced a flow of gas, ashes, and pumice, which ran over the settlements at the base of Vesuvius.
The following day, great dense clouds of ash came racing down the volcano, pouring like an avalanche at great speed along the flanks of the mountain, destroying and burying the buildings that had held up to the rain of pumice.
When the eruption ceased, the entire city of Pompeii was buried under a layer of approximately three meters of volcanic pumice and ashes.
From the time the eruption began on the afternoon of the 24 of August, a rain of pumice gravel battered the city of Pompeii for about eighteen hours.
Unlike many of the other residents of Pompeii, at least ten people who were in the House of Polibius at the time of the eruption did not leave. In the streets and alleyways near the House of Polibius, in the courtyard garden, and in the atria, pumice gravel rapidly accumulated.
On the morning of the 25, the front part of the building, which opened onto the Via dell’Abbondanza, was destroyed by boulders of crumbled masonry, while a great quantity of pumice gravel invaded the interior spaces through the impluvia and the battered roofs. The inhabitants of the house sought safety in two of the rear rooms.
At that point the building was hit by a series of waves of ash and gas emanating from Vesuvius. These violent waves were similar to an avalanche. They pounded the house and entered into the rear areas, causing the deaths of those who had survived until then.

The history of excavations
One of the early discoveries of ancient Pompeii came in the 16th century when Domenico Fontana came upon some of the city’s constructions while excavating a canal from the River Sarno. However, this early exploration did not recognise the remains as belonging to the city centre buried in the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius.
As from 1748 extensive excavation campaigns were undertaken on the initiative of Charles the Bourbon. These led to the discovery of the Herculaneum Gate and the Via dei Sepolcri. In 1770 the monumental Villa of Diomedes was unearthed. Between 1760 and 1770 several major finds were brought to light: the Great Theatre, the Odeion, and the Triangular Forum. The Temple of Isis was also discovered at this time, and there was a considerable clamour about the decorations associated with this Egyptian cult. From 1806 to 1815 the Forum, heart of social and political life of the city, was explored. The following years revealed the Forum Baths, the House of the Tragic Poet, and an elegant row of houses on the Via Mercurio. In 1830 came the exploration of the House of the Faun, with its fine mosaic decorations.
In 1863 Giuseppe Fiorelli was named Superintendent of the excavations. It was he who brought to light the neighbourhoods along the Via Stabiana, and who defined the method for making plaster casts in cavities left by bodies in the erupted ashes, therefore restoring faithful images of the victims of the eruption.
A series of important buildings was excavated in succession: in 1879-80 the House of the Centenary with its lararium, in 1884 the House of the Silver Wedding, in 1894 the House of the Vettii, with its exceptional collection of wall paintings, and in 1910, the Villa of Mysteries. Of great prominence were the excavations of the Via dell’Abbondanza, which linked the Forum to the Amphitheatre. Recent phases of excavation have explored the House of the Menander with its silverware, the palaestra, the tombs and the gate of the Via Nocera

The Exhibition

The travelling exhibition Homo Faber opened in Naples in 1999. It was then hosted by various museums in Europe, United States and Japan between 2001 and 2002. This online exhibition updates the 1999 website and features a selection of original findings, artworks and working models.

Homo Faber – The Reason Why

An interview with The Archaeological Superintendent of Pompeii, Prof. Pietro Giovanni Guzzo
Pompeii, February 1999 (filmed by Humberto Serra, Rome)

Why was this theme chosen for the exhibition?

It was chosen because science, technology, and the observation of nature in the ancient world are a field rich with possibility, providing insights on at least two fundamental levels: the first, specifically on the history of science and generally on the history of culture; the other, relative to applications in daily life. These two levels, while separate, are closely linked and add to our general knowledge about the ancient world and permit us to reflect on the organisation of civic life.

What type of documents and evidence are displayed in the exhibit?

Pompeii, as everyone knows, presents a case that is of utmost importance for the study of antiquity, in that it shows us the conditions and contexts of ancient life which were suddenly interrupted in the night between the 24th and 25th of August, 79 AD, when the eruption of Vesuvius buried, under five meters of lapilli and ash, this small city on the Campanian coast. The unexpected end and complete burial of the city with all its furnishings, its inhabitants, and its activities conserved a patrimony of knowledge which we have been exploring for two and a half centuries. From 1748 to today, continual campaigns of excavation have brought to light new elements of knowledge and an ever growing documentation. Aside from the artistic monuments which --I believe-- are well known to all (the frescoes, statues, tools of metal and other materials), lesser known aspects of life have been revealed to us: for example, the grass cut the day before the eruption, the food, the animals, and many other things that are not usually preserved in the archaeological world, because life continued and consumed the materials of preceding civilisations. Pompeii, therefore, together with Herculaneum, Oplontis, and Stabiae, permits a broadening of the field of knowledge in these sectors which in other places in the ancient world is not possible. This development of knowledge is particularly relevant in those sectors which refer to the patterns of daily life and therefore to the practices resulting from the scientific knowledge of ancient people, thanks to which it was possible to cultivate the fields, to build, to use machinery and other mechanisms to facilitate daily life, to weave and to make cosmetics.

What is the significance of the exhibition "Homo Faber"?

The stimulus for the exhibition was provided by the realisation of the importance of understanding how this body of knowledge was constructed and the use to which we can put it today. The knowledge that is at the basis of the exhibition "Homo faber" is the outcome of many years of research, conducted within the wider range of activities of the Archaeological Superintendence in Pompeii, and thanks to collaboration with numerous research groups from some of the most important universities and research centres in the world. We have here an eloquent example of how international collaboration in the scientific realm can lead to an advancement of knowledge in general. This may seem an expression devoid of meaning. In actual facts, the presentation of the exhibition itself, which we hope will be viewed by a great number of visitors, will fill this assertion with concrete significance. Italy and the Archaeological Superintendences of the Ministry of the Cultural Heritage are responsible for an enormous patrimony relative to the ancient world, but this patrimony does not belong solely to Italy, nor to the public bodies that administrate it. The line of action that must be constantly encouraged is that of ensuring that the preservation of this patrimony inspires effective initiatives towards better understanding of it, so that it may assume significance within the contemporary context.

What novelties does "Homo Faber" present?

We are used to presenting and visiting exhibitions and museums in which are presented historical-artistic or antiquarian collections, shows and museums in which frescoes, statues, and decorated vases are admired for their own value. In "Homo Faber" the choice was different. In this case the archaeological material was used to support the driving intent of the exhibition, which is that of demonstrating how science, technology and the observation of nature developed and materialised in the ancient world. We hope that this can serve to stimulate the reflection of each visitor to an archaeological site. This new formulation must help us also to understand, in a concrete way, the concept that is perhaps the most difficult for a visitor to an archaeological site to assimilate, that of the depth and extent of time which separates us, but which constitutes the continuity between the past and the present. Undoubtedly in the contemporary world, in which technology is ever present in daily life, the possibility of comparing the differences between the technologies used today and those used two thousand years ago facilitates the comprehension of this temporal distance. At the same time, we can observe how many of the physical laws that determine the functioning of today's technology were already recognised two thousand years ago. We have here therefore, tangibly observable, the separation and the continuity that constitute the flesh and blood of history. And it is only through the study and the knowledge of history that modern man is truly of today, and not just a deciduous leaf in an undefined time. But time is an essential character of man as a thinking being, because it illuminates the roots of our past, the roots that give us a sense of the present and show us a path toward the future.

The exhibition design

The particularity of this archaeological exhibition, in which a profound historical knowledge of the ancient world was united with a rigorous scientific reconstruction, determined a layout in which the archaeological finds were not isolated from their original context. Rather they became the "pretext" for narrating the life of Pompeii and thus bringing together a heritage of hitherto fragmented knowledge. The central idea of the project was that of a schematic interpretation of the archaeological excavation: the archaeological find resurfaces from the ashes and the city resurfaces from the archaeological find. Thus there are two levels or "layers" that alluded to the stratification of the archaeological excavation: the first level "displayed" the artefacts or finds which have re-emerged from excavation on horizontal or vertical ash colour supports, the second made Pompeii "re-appear" with the aid of large colour photographic representations and videos: after the ash grey the colour of the life of Pompeii is reborn. This internal-external dialogue and the continual modification in scale (from the exhibit to photographic blow-ups, to the animation of the video) attempted to project the visitor into the reality of Pompeii so that he could feel it come alive before him. Homo Faber did not only "show" objects or situations, but attempted to convey the significance of living under Vesuvius. (Arch. Stefano Gris)