Dealing with Decay

14-10-2010, 20:36

One of the things that the collapse of the House of the Gladiators at Pompeii, again, made painfully clear is that excavated material remains have a life cycle too. At the very moment of their discovery, walls, floors and plaster are taken out of the stable environment that has protected them for so long, and they immediately resume doing what they had been doing before they were buried: suffering from wind, sun, rain, noise, pollution and vibrations. It is not said, of course, that their previous environment was completely hospitable and nice, but, generally speaking, architectural remains decay considerably more slowly underground than they do exposed to the banal reality of everyday.

Pompeii, V 2, i: Dealing with decay - The unique painted ceiling, carefully recovered during excavation, has, in the mean time, given in to gravity. The roof is to follow. (Photo: Miko Flohr [2012])

Hence, the natural twin sister of archaeology is conservation. From the moment in which they began excavating and studying ancient architecture, archaeologists have noticed decay and have tried to play tricks with time in order to stop this process; in all periods, state-of-the art technologies have been applied to try to preserve as much as possible of the archaeological remains. While it is easy to criticize or even ridicule the conservation practices of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, they really did slow down decay, and, given the technological advances made over the last century or so, it would be remarkable, if not seriously worrying if we still considered early twentieth century practice a viable way of working today. Archaeological conservation practice has improved. We have invested in conservation and we have become terribly good at it, especially during the last decades, and we will surely get even better at it in the near future. It is already technologically possible to almost halt the decay of our new discoveries, and to do this without visibly distorting their appearance. This would have been impossible without the many successes and failures of the last two centuries.

From conservation management to decay management

Yet, the bold reality is that, in the end, we are basically buying time. We are prolonging the period over which we consume our heritage, but that does not change anything to the fact that we are consuming it: decay cannot be stopped completely and forever. Moreover, even for the most prosperous civilisation that has ever existed in the history of mankind, protecting all valuable remains of what we consider our past with state-of-the-art technologies would be quite an expense, and an expense that, even if it were economically viable, socially and politically would be hardly justifiable. There is simply too much stuff around: one of the lessons archaeology has learnt the hard way is that it is not the quantity of the excavated area that matters, but the quality of the excavation itself. Especially during the late nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, complete cities were excavated in little or no time – large parts of Pompeii and Herculaneum were also excavated in this period, as well as Ostia, most of which was excavated in little more than four years under the fascist regime of Mussolini, and many cities elsewhere in Italy, in the French colonies in Africa, in Turkey and in Greece. Perfect, state-of-the-art conservation of all this archaeological heritage is a Utopia. We cannot afford it. Period.

Perhaps, it is time we should start to slowly get rid of the idea that it is our task to always try to preserve everything forever out in the open. This sounds harsh, and it should not be taken to be an argument to just let half of our heritage happily rot away without anyone bothering. Yet, if we cannot preserve all our heritage forever, we should stop pretending we can, face reality, and take the right decisions about what we can do. We cannot stop decay, but we can, to a certain extent, manage it. This, however, requires hard decisions, debates about prioritizing and some fundamental discussion about the ethical aspects of things. Of course, such debates have already been going on for some decades among archaeologists, but mainly in relation to the fate of archaeological remains encountered during modern building projects or in relation to the difficult decisions taken in the process of excavating concerning the removal of certain remains in order to more fully understand others. The archaeological heritage of the ancient cities excavated in the last two centuries requires a different discussion, and one which cannot be seen apart from the fact that, in the first place, many of these sites are currently in a state that suggests they are approaching some point of no return – the problem is urgent at this very moment – and, secondly, that some of these sites are major tourist attractions that actually play a key role in assuring the role of heritage from the classical world in present day society.


Both issues certainly play a key role in understanding the heritage position of Pompeii. It is a platitude to say that Pompeii is in a bad state. As an archaeologist who has worked at the site regularly over the last twelve years, I have seen the remains of city slowly decay from year to year, and there were, actually, rather few visits during which I did not discover pollution caused by tourists, damage to some structure, the disappearance of some wall-covering, or the collapse of an entire room, such as the toilet of the House of the Silver wedding a couple of years ago. Our excavations in a fulling workshop near the House of the Gilded Cupids two years ago actually returned more remains of beer bottles and building materials used by building workers involved in reconstructing the house’s outer wall than they returned ancient pottery. Most of this decay takes place unnoticed, in the parts of the city closed to tourists, which are only incidentally visited by archaeologists. Yet, I have also seen how restoration works were carried out, almost continuously, throughout the city, especially during the last five years. It is much too easy to set the archaeological authorities away as incompetent, dysfunctional and lazy: they are working very hard, they have managed to improve some things a little bit over the last decade, and, as has been pointed out by others in the media these days, they really love the site. What they have done is just not nearly enough, but, as has also been pointed out by others, that is not their fault: the site is simply too big, and the budget is too low.

At the same time, visitor numbers have soared with the emergence of lowcost airlines during the last decade, and the authorities are under a lot of pressure to open up as much of the site as possible and to show as complete an image of the ancient city as can possibly be shown, which directs parts of the funding for decay management to interventions necessary to keep the site safe for its visitors. Of course, for a site like Pompeii, tourism is and should be a top priority, and most archaeologists are aware of the fact that this mass tourism actually is one of the pillars on which the social relevance of their occupation and the heritage itself rests, even though tourists have priorities vastly different from scholars and authorities, may sometimes complicate or even prohibit scholarly relevant investigations, and are responsible for a lot of damage to the heritage: ancient floors were not made to carry thousands of tourists each day, and many have eroded away over the years. Tourists also do not always behave as one would want, of course, climbing walls that should not be climbed, leaving rubbish in places where it should not be left, and sometimes even taking ‘finds’ with them in the form of fragments of mosaics, or plaster, and then I am not talking about those who use the many small rooms in the back parts of houses as an alternative public toilet. This, unfortunately, is all part of the natural dynamics of tourism, and it is beyond the control of any authorities in a site as large and as full of visitors as Pompeii.

With its long history, its high cultural profile, and its structural maintenance problems, Pompeii is, thus, a typical, if extreme, example of a site where it is of key relevance to abolish the myth of conservation and embrace the reality of decay management. What does that mean? It means, in the first place, that we should develop a clear and fact-based idea about how we would expect Pompeii to look like in twenty, fifty and a hundred years time if we continue at the present level of maintenance. Moreover, we need to assume that casualties will occur, and that remains will inevitably keep on disintegrating and disappearing at places where we do not want them to do that, but we will need to explicitly discuss the prioritization of maintenance works: why are we doing what we are doing, and why are we not doing what we are not doing? Perhaps, the most important thing is that we should not be afraid of making difficult choices.

Decay management at Pompeii

One of the key questions, of course, is what will dictate maintenance: the priorities of tourists or those of scholars. Both, actually, have a good case, but they have different requirements. For archaeologists, falsifiability is the key. As long as the documentation is good enough, this would mean that, in the case of wall-paintings, there might come a point where it becomes more attractive to take the painting off the wall and to conserve it in a more conditioned environment, to preserve its details. Yet, for a tourist, it is of great interest to see everything in the place where it belongs, whatever the exact details are. The same is true for mosaics. These may, in situ, be better of underneath some form of protection, so that archaeologists still may check what they looked like in twenty years time, while tourists want to enjoy the entire house in all its aspects. To keep both groups satisfied it may be necessary to make explicit (and, occasionally, perhaps definitive) choices between remains that serve scholarly purposes and those that may be given over to tourism.

Another issue is that we may want to prepare buildings with a roof or high walls which we exclude from maintenance for an eventual collapse, so that when that happens, no more damage is done than is strictly necessary. We may even chose to remove some of the modern reconstructions of walls and roofs ourselves, to postpone that moment, even though that means that what is inside is more exposed to the elements than it had been when the roof was still there: there are ways to overcome that, and these are not necessarily terribly expensive. A more radical solution may even be to decide to actively reinter certain houses or even parts of the city – as, indeed, was already done in the 18th century with the Praedia Juliae Felicis and the Villa of Cicero – even though this is not necessarily cheap or practical, given the enormous quantities of backfill needed to be able to do this. This would, of course, mean that parts of the city disappear, but at least they are brought back to a more or less stable environment that, for example, protects them against earthquakes. Who knows what we can do in two centuries time.

Yet most urgently, it would mean, for archaeologists, that conservation and decay begin to play a key role in decisions about the priorities of research. There are certain things in Pompeii that can be studied now, but will perhaps be much harder to study in twenty years time. These partially include wall-paintings and mosaics, but it may be argued that, generally speaking, the documentation of wall-paintings and mosaics is relatively up to standards, especially since the publication of the Pompeii: Pitture and Mosaici volumes in the 1990s, though there is a clear bias towards the larger houses dominating the debate there. If one should name two datasets that deserve serious attention from the scholarly community over the next few years, a logical choice would be standing walls and remains of fixtures and installations related to the more mundane aspects of everyday life.

The nature of walls, the construction techniques and materials used, and the way in which walls relate to each other have proven of great relevance in making sense of the history and development of Pompeii. Yet, even during the last three decades, when Pompeian studies flourished as never before and significant progress has been made, only a small part of the city’s standing walls have been studied and published, and there is an incredible lot of material left to make sense of that may easily collapse when Pompeii is struck by an earthquake at some point in the next ten years. While there are scholars who consider data from stratigraphic excavation more important for our understanding of Pompeii’s building history than the standing remains of the walls, this is no reason to neglect what is clearly visible and may be studies with relatively little effort or cost.

Remains of installations for work or household tasks have traditionally been almost completely neglected by Pompeianists, as well as by the archaeological authorities, and though there has been a serious increase of interest in these categories of material during the last ten years, this has, again, only affected a relatively small percentage of the body of data available. What is crucial here is that most of these remains are extremely vulnerable: the remains of a work installation may just exist of two low and narrow walls that may easily disappear under modern pollution or disintegrate because of the roots of plants and herbs penetrating them. Moreover, many of these remains are not yet completely understood and can, perhaps, only be understood in their present state. For the scholarly community, work installations should be a top priority.

Yet, these are only two examples, the study of other datasets may be equally urgent; the precise hierarchy of urgency, of course, is a matter of debate. The key point is, however, that it is important to make the most of the data that is around now and to start with those remains that seem bound to disappear first. The implication is also, that low priority should be given to the study of those datasets that, at least for the moment, are relatively stable or well-documented. At this moment, it is not so urgent to invest money in another study of the famous megalographies of the Villa of the Mysteries, or in an analysis of the fourth style on the basis of the houses published in the Haüser in Pompeji series. It is much more urgent to produce a comprehensive study of the paintings in the House of the Vettii, before its roof finally collapses and takes part of the house’s paintings with it, and then I am not even mentioning the remains of wall-decorations in much more modest houses that thus far have escaped notice altogether. Similarly, it is completely unnecessary to spoil our money with investigations underneath the AD 79 floor level if there is so much material above that floor level that has not been analyzed or investigated. What is hidden underneath, is relatively safe there, and can wait, even though the questions we may want to answer now can only be answered underneath the AD 79 floor level. Adapting our questions to the present state of the excavations may feel counterintuitive, but it may just turn out to be one of the wisest things we can do at this point. At least, it should be part of the scholarly debate.


What goes for Pompeii, goes for Ostia, for Ephesos, for Delos, and for a large group of world-class sites many people outside the field do not even know of, such as Timgad in Algeria, or Solunto in Sicily. Classical Archaeology, as a discipline, should be struggling to cope with the decaying heritage produced by six or seven decades of large-scale excavation bonanza a hundred years ago. Yet, when one looks around, one cannot help but noticing a field that is very eager to embark on new projects, exploring new, unknown sites, or unseen aspects of known sites, but that is generally much less eager to squeeze insight out of datasets that have already around for some time. Indeed, there even seem to be Mediterranean archaeologists who have come to believe that we more or less ‘know’ the cities excavated last century, and can leave them to the tourists. This is outright dangerous. Few people who really know anything about these sites would ever dare to claim that we know a lot, let alone all about these sites. The fact is that we know a certain quantity of facts, but we understand virtually nothing. If one thing should be made clear to the wider world, than it is this: we know that we don’t know.

If we think the decay is real, it should at least partially shape our scholarly agenda, even though we may end up doing things we later regret. Archaeological heritage is, in a certain sense, like a can of strawberries: once you open it, you have a limited amount of time to consume it. I am uneasy with throwing away strawberries, but that occasionally happens in the chaotic logistics of everyday life. Yet, as far as our heritage is concerned, we are morally obliged to past, present and future, to consume as much of it as we can, and to get as much insight out of it before it is gone. Oxford. November 12, 2010.