Thursday, October 04, 2012

Digging on the dark side of Vesuvius

1822 artist rendition of the eruption of Vesuv...
1822 artist rendition of the eruption of Vesuvius, depicting what the AD 79 eruption may have looked like. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Hannah Snell combined her passion for archaeology with her love of Roman architecture during her summer months excavating with the team from the Apolline Project in Italy. Here she tells CWA about her experience of digging a Roman bathhouse on the north slope of Vesuvius.
We have all heard about Pompeii and Herculaneum, but the award-winning Apolline Project, directed by Girolamo Ferdinando de Simone, focuses on little-known settlements and small sites, such as Roman villas, on the 'dark' side of Vesuvius – the north slope of the volcano, on the train line between Naples and Sorrento.

Our site, in the tiny village of Pollena Trocchia, is a Roman bathhouse now thought to be part of a larger villa complex buried in the AD 472 eruption. Excavation has yielded some interesting finds, such as coins and stucco-work, and datable brickstamps showing that the site was in occupation shortly after the AD 79 eruption.

We view the Pompeiian eruption as a sign of the devastating force of nature and the destruction of human life. But Pompeii was a relatively small town, and perhaps not the hub of wealth and culture that we see it as today. In any case, resettlement, at least of the north side, occurred within years of the event, suggesting that although the event was devastating, life continued.

Both Italian and English archaeology students were on site, which meant the straddling of language barriers and a lot of arm-waving in the first week. We all got on well though, especially after a few nights of cheap wine on the roof terrace (with amazing views out over the bright lights of Naples). The trench supervisors were also Italian and English, and had worked on the site before, so knew how to run a thorough excavation. And with Ferdinando on site most days, everything went smoothly.

English: Mount Vesuvius as seen from Pompeii. ...
English: Mount Vesuvius as seen from Pompeii. Hi-res scan from large-format print, scaled down to avoid the Wikimedia issue with images > 12.5 MP. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Of course, it wasn't all glamorous roof parties and glittering finds every day. Archaeology is hard work (and don't let anyone tell you otherwise), particularly when excavating through layers of solid ash. How some people managed to walk away clean at the end of the day remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of archaeology.

Excavating in Italy has its own challenges, with temperatures in the summer reaching highs of 40°C, but responsible supervisors enforced water breaks rigorously. It has also ruined my language conversation skills – when else would I find asking for the wheelbarrow in Italian useful?

Excavations are often underpinned by the hard work of paying volunteers, but they also depend heavily on enthusiasm and the involvement of the community. This is something which the Apolline Project has striven to combine, frequently holding community open days, and offering skills and knowledge to the trainee excavators. This all resulted in a fascinating three weeks in a beautiful country.