Unpeeling Pompeii

By Fulford, Michael; Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew | Antiquity, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Unpeeling Pompeii


Fulford, Michael, Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew, Antiquity


Pompeii, recovered from under Vesuvius ash, offers a famous 'frozen moment' in archaeological time: a city us it stood at a certain day. Beyond and beneath the dating evidence visible in its standing buildings is to be found a more archaeological chronology.

Pompeii enjoys the advantages, and suffers the disadvantages, of a continuous tradition of study stretching back two and a half centuries to the beginning of the Bourbon excavations in 1748. In this tradition, many assumptions have become embedded which if proposed now would not stand up to scrutiny. One such is that the successive phases of the history of the city from its foundation, probably in the 7th century BC, are visible, at least in part, in the standing remains. The project on which we report is only one of a new generation of projects that seek to unpick such assumptions, and move the debate about Pompeii on to the sort of conceptual and evidential basis that is normal for archaeological sites.

By two fundamental tenets of Pompeian studies, the variety of construction techniques and materials encountered in the structures still standing at the moment of destruction reflect a sequence of chronologically distinct phases, and these caesuras in material culture reflect major shifts in the history of the city and its dominant population. That approach drew encouragement from the start by the account of the Augustan geographer, Strabo, of Pompeii's successive domination by different ethnic groupings, which he identified as the Oscans, the Tyrrhenians (i.e. Etruscans) and the Samnites (Geography 5.4.8). The first systematically developed modern hypothesis was that of Giuseppe Fiorelli, superintendent from 1861 to 1875, who saw three main epochs, corresponding to three main types of construction: the first he identified with the use of Sarno limestone, the eta calcarea he believed to be Greek and Campanian, rather than Etruscan as in Strabo; the second, identified with the use of grey Nocera tuff, he saw as Samnite; the third, characterized by the use of concrete, marked Roman control and the colonial foundation of 80 BC (Fiorelli 1873).

Some of these assumptions were promptly questioned by Nissen (1877: 30-40) in objections which went unheeded, and the schema of successive phases of limestone, tuff and concrete construction became enshrined in the authoritative work of August Mau (1899). Mau preferred a sequence of Oscans (i.e. the original local population), at first 'civilized' and then 'enervated' by contact with the Greeks, giving way to Samnites, to whom he reattributed the 'limestone phase', followed after the Second Punic War by the Nocera tuff phase, and finally by Roman conquest (Mau 1899: 35ff). That schema remains the dominant consensus, including the regular characterization of limestone buildings as 'Samnite', and tuff facades as 'hellenistic' (i.e. 2nd century BC), and thus by implication pre-Roman.

A remarkable feature of the consensus is its lack of stratigraphic foundation, a failure seen and spelt out with great clarity by the young Amedeo Maiuri, early in his long superintendency (Maiuri 1930). Though Fiorelli and Mau, he conceded, represented a vast advance compared to the excavators of the Kingdom of Naples, whose interest was limited to the recovery of works of art and other 'noble' artefacts, their hypotheses about the development of the city had never been tested by exploration in the subsoil (Maiuri 1930: 74-81). Maiuri himself set about a programme of systematic testing, emphasizing the openness of mind that was called for: it was not enough to excavate simply to confirm or to refute a theory, since excavation in depth would always produce unexpected results (Maiuri 1930: 137). He examined the circuit of walls, successfully showing that not only the tract around the 'old city' but the whole circuit incorporated a 'pre-Samnite' wall of the 6th century; he explored the subsoil around the Doric temple of the so-called triangular Forum, and the temple of Apollo on the Forum, producing deposits of votive material of the archaic period that confirmed their early date; and he explored beneath the floor level in the atria of a number of houses, starting with the Casa del Chirurgo, revealing traces of earlier structures in different materials with ground plans incompatible with the standing structures.

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