18th-19th century

Pompeii: 18th - 20th century

Workmen building roads, in the district south of Vesuvius, often unearth ancient remains. Systematic digging begins in 1748. An amphitheatre is discovered, and some villas. In 1763 an inscription is unearthed which for the first time confirms that these buildings were in Pompeii.

The professional uncovering of this extraordinary place, preserved in volcanic ash like a fly in amber, begins in 1860. The archaeologists of that period devise a brilliant technique for giving form to objects, whether human bodies or wooden chairs, which have long since crumbled to dust. Plaster is injected into the hollow before the surrounding ash is chipped away. The result, as in any casting technique, is an exact replica.

This process has provided the most evocative of all images from Pompeii - the shapes of its inhabitants, exactly as they fell in their final attempt to escape from the hot suffocating dust. Archaeology has also revealed, more than in any other site, the surroundings which these people knew in their everyday lives, the objects they used, even the numerous graffiti which they scratched on the outer walls of their houses for the usual range of purposes from electioneering to obscenity.

Many disasters have destroyed more. But none has preserved so much as the eruption of Vesuvius in79.


Pompeii: 6th - 1st century BC

The first settlers at Pompeii are Greeks, part of the spread of Greek colonies around the Mediterranean in the 6th century BC. By the 4th century the town has been taken by Samnites, a hardy Italian tribe from the inland hills. But they recognize the attractions of the older culture. The main influence in Pompeii remains Greek - reinforced from the 3rd century by the fashion for everything Hellenistic, even though the political agenda is now increasingly set by Rome.

The balance changes abruptly in 80 BC. Sulla, the ruthless new Roman dictator, needs land on which to settle his soldiers. Sending some 2000 families to live at Pompeii, he declares it a Roman colony.

Pompeii: 1st century AD

Pompeii is therefore a normal Roman town, of considerable prosperity in its privileged coastal position, during the first century of the empire. Large villas are built for its prosperous citizens, elaborately decorated with murals and mosaics and enclosing courtyard gardens. Public buildings are improved, a new theatre is provided, an aqueduct is constructed to improve the town's water supply.

Then, in AD 62, the first of two disasters strikes. A serious earthquake damages most of the buildings. The citizens are still in the process of repairing their town when the final blow falls in AD 79. The local mountain, Vesuvius, thought to be long dead as a volcano, erupts.

Pliny the Younger has left a detailed description of this appalling event, in which his uncle (Pliny the Elder) suffocates in an attempt to go to the help of the afflicted. The eruption begins during the morning. By the evening Pompeii is under six feet of volcanic ash.

When all the ash has settled, it is twelve feet deep in places. Gradually, over the centuries, fertile earth becomes established on the surface, to be ploughed and cultivated. Pompeii has vanished. Accounts of its end are familiar to scholars. But no one knows exactly where this unfortunate place was - until its Rediscovery in the 18th century.
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