The city of Pompeii was an ancient town-city near modern Naples in the Italian region of Campania. Pompeii and much of the surrounding area, was mostly destroyed and buried under 4 to 6 m (13 to 20 ft) of ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Researchers believe that the town was founded in the seventh or sixth century BC by the Oscans and was captured by the Romans in 80 BC. By the time of its destruction, 160 years later, its population was probably around 20,000 and the city had a complex water system, an amphitheatre, gymnasium and a port. The eruption was cataclysmic for the town. Details of the destruction originally came from a surviving letter by Pliny the Younger, who saw the eruption from a distance and described the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder, an admiral of the Roman fleet, who tried to rescue stranded victims.
A multidisciplinary volcanological and bio-anthropological study of the eruption remains, merged with numerical simulations and experiments, indicate that at Vesuvius and the surrounding towns, heat was the main cause of death of people, who previously were thought to have died by ash suffocation. The results of the study, published in 2010, show that exposure to at least 250 °C (482 °F) hot surges at a distance of 10 kilometres (6 miles) from the vent was sufficient to cause instant death, even if people were sheltered within buildings. After thick layers of ash covered the two towns, they were abandoned and eventually their names and locations were forgotten.
The first time any part of them was unearthed was in 1599, when the digging of an underground channel to divert the river Sarno ran into ancient walls covered with paintings and inscriptions. An architect, Domenico Fontana, was called in; he unearthed a few more frescoes, then covered them over again and nothing more came of the discovery. Fontana’s act of covering over the paintings has been seen as censorship due to the sexual content of the paintings that were not considered in good taste in the climate of the religious reformation of the time.
A broader and intentional rediscovery took place almost 150 years later by Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre in 1748. Charles of Bourbon took great interest in the findings, even after becoming king of Spain, because the display of antiquities reinforced the political and cultural power of Naples, when Naples was under Spanish rule. The artifacts provided a detailed insight into the life of a city during the Pax Romana ( a peaceful period during the Roman Empire). Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the excavations in 1863. During early excavations of the site, occasional voids in the ash layer had been found that contained human remains. It was Fiorelli who realized these were spaces left by the decomposed bodies and so devised the technique of injecting plaster into them to recreate the forms of Vesuvius’s victims. This technique is still in use today, with a clear resin now used instead of plaster because it is more durable and does not destroy the bones, allowing for further analysis.
The objects buried beneath Pompeii were well-preserved for almost two thousand years. The lack of air and moisture allowed for the objects to remain underground with little to no deterioration, which meant that, once excavated, the site had a wealth of sources and evidence for analysis, giving detail into the lives of the Pompeians. However, once exposed, Pompeii has been subject to both natural and man-made forces which have rapidly increased their rate of deterioration. Weathering, erosion, light exposure, water damage, poor methods of excavation and reconstruction, the introduction of plants and animals, tourism, vandalism and theft have all damaged the site in some way. Two-thirds of the city has been excavated, but the remnants of the city are rapidly deteriorating. Today, funding is mostly directed into conservation of the site; however, due to the expanse of Pompeii and the scale of its problems, this is inadequate in halting the slow decay of the site. An estimated US-$335 million is needed for all necessary work on Pompeii. A large number of artifacts from Pompeii are preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.
The ruins of the ancient Roman town of Ostia Antica about 18 miles southeast of Rome aren’t nearly as well-known as those of Pompeii. However, Ostia Antica has its own allure. Not only is it the second-best-kept ancient Roman city anywhere in the world (after Pompeii), but archeologists have also just discovered that there is far more of it than anyone ever knew. If the new discoveries are excavated, Ostia Antica will be far larger than the ruins of Pompeii and possibly provide an even better window into the past. The problem – there are no funds to do the digging and the site is adjacent to Rome’s busy Fiumicino airport runways, so it will likely stay buried.
Archeologists have already learned a lot from Ostia Antica, which was an important river port for goods traveling to and from ancient Rome. Historians have long thought that Ostia Antica’s border was the Tiber River, which winds through Rome and into the Mediterranean Sea. The discovery of the new section of the ruins, which was led by the British Universities of Southampton and Cambridge, extends the city to the other side of the Tiber, meaning the river actually ran through the town, which changes everything. “This city was not just seafaring but also an emporium,” Darius Arya, an American archaeologist based in Rome who founded The American Institute for Roman Culture said, “We’ll learn a lot more about the goods shipped to and stored in this massive, sprawling town en route to Rome. There will be much more evidence of the warehouse and storage mechanisms and the associations that ran them.”
Like many discoveries, the new part of Ostia Antica was found by accident. Last summer, archeologists discovered a Roman mausoleum and ancient dwelling while cleaning up a landfill on an adjacent dig. “They found a circular mausoleum covered with travertine blocks, built between the end of the first century B.C and the start of the first century A.D.”, Paola Germoni, Ostia’s superintendent, said when she presented the project. A wall structure was discovered under the park’s humus layer and the illegal dump site revealed a beautiful marble-covered pavement. The “secret” part of the ancient Roman port of Ostia Antica that was unearthed by British archaeologists showed that Ostia was larger than the Pompeii site. The team discovered a building twice the size of a football field, a boundary wall and large defensive towers under fields near the Rome airport – making the area 35 per cent larger than previously thought.
The findings change the way we think about how Rome’s port worked and how emperors kept one million Romans supplied with food. It shows Rome was importing significantly more food through the port than was thought. “It also sheds light on how important Ostia was to trade in the first 200 years of the millennium,” said Mariarosaria Barbera, superintendent of Rome’s archaeological heritage. Using handheld magnetic scanners and software to create images similar to aerial photographs, the team discovered three warehouses and the large building, that may have been a warehouse or a public building.
A slow decadence began in the late Roman era, around the time of Constantine I, with the town ceasing to be an active port and instead becoming a popular country retreat for rich aristocrats from Rome. The decaying conditions of the city were mentioned by St. Augustine when he passed there in the late 4th century. The poet Rutilius Namatianus also reported the lack of maintenance of the city in 414. With the end of the Roman Empire, Ostia fell slowly into decay and was finally abandoned in the 9th century due to the repeated invasions and sackings by Arab pirates.
Ostia’s small museum offers a look at some of the city’s finest statuary — tangled wrestlers, kissing cupids and playful gods, to name just a few. Most of the statues are second and third century A.D. The portrait busts are of real people — the kind you’d sit next to in the public baths. Surviving frescoes, while scant, give a feeling for how living quarters may have looked. One display in the museum showed how the original Ostia Road was constructed: heavy posts buried deep and cemented in as a base, then a layer of stones, more concrete and finally the paving stones. Much of what had remained of these well-built roads was dug up and used for construction elsewhere.
The Cuisine of Pompeii and Ostia Antica
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 bunch dandelions (about 3/4 pound), bottom quarter of stems removed, washed and shredded
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a skillet, heat the olive oil and butter over medium-high heat and when the butter melts add the garlic and the dandelions. Cook until the dandelions wilt and the water evaporates, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
Pasta with Fried Eggs
- 1/2 pound perciatelli (bucatini) or spaghetti
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 large eggs
- 1/4 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
- 2 teaspoons freshly grated black pepper
- Finely chopped fresh parsley
Bring 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil over high heat, salt abundantly and add the pasta in handfuls. Cook over high heat, stirring occasionally so the pasta doesn’t stick together, until al dente. Drain.
A few minutes before the pasta is done, melt the butter in a small nonstick skillet over medium heat. When the butter stops bubbling and turns a light brown, crack the eggs into the pan and cook until the tops set.
Transfer the pasta to a serving bowl and toss with the cheese and pepper. Divide the pasta into two bowls and slide an egg on top of each. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.
Grilled Pork Chops over Soft Bread
- 6 pork chops with some fat on them (about 2 1/2 to 3 pounds)
- 1/4 cup melted lard or olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Six 1-inch-thick slices good-quality Italian bread, crusts removed, and a little larger than the pork chops
- Rosemary sprigs for garnish
Prepare a charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill for 15 minutes on high.
Brush the chops with some melted lard and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Grill, turning once and brushing several times with melted lard, for 10 minutes. Grill, turning and basting occasionally, until golden brown and the ring of fat is slightly crisp, about another 30 minutes. Place the bread on a platter and place the grilled chops on top. Sprinkle with more pepper, garnish with rosemary and let rest a few minutes before serving.