Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What Lies Beneath Pompeii

Archaeology is a destructive process. The dirt that we dig through isn't just an annoying impediment to the discovery of fantastical treasure--its layers give us important information about temporal relationships between artifacts, provide clues to how and why a grave was disturbed, and serve as a time capsule of natural and anthropogenic environmental change. From the time that I took my first college course in archaeology 15 years ago to this semester, when I taught the archaeology unit in my general anthropology class, one ethical tenet of the field hasn't changed: don't just excavate because you can.

Often in intro to archaeology courses, the go-to example for "don't excavate just because you can" is the site of Pompeii. Destroyed by a volcano in 79 AD, Pompeii has for centuries yielded unsurpassed information about life in the Roman Empire. It was rediscovered in 1749, but excavations were halted in 1997. At least one-quarter of the city is still buried under ash and more contemporary debris, awaiting advances in technology to excavate and preserve the site, important considerations in light of the architectural collapses during the 2010 rainy season.

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