Rescue of Ancient Ruin of Pompeii Follows New Plan

Restoration at the beleaguered archaeological site will be modeled on Herculaneum.

A ruin facing ruin, Pompeii looks to one of its doomed sister cities in its latest rescue effort. (Related: "The Real Pompeii.")

Italian officials this month unveiled details of the Great Pompeii Project, a 105-million-euro ($145 million U.S.) project to restore the famed Roman town, pillaged by treasure hunters, overrun by tourists, and wracked by the elements in the four centuries since its rediscovery. (See "Doomsday Pompeii.")

A highly innovative, "maintenance-based" approach to restoration will guide the project, said Massimo Osanna, the newly appointed superintendent of the site, in a statement.

Instead of piecemeal patches to individual buildings or attractions, the effort will take its cues from the conservation of the nearby buried Roman town of Herculaneum. The hope is that by putting comprehensive maintenance concerns first, more of the site can be opened to visitors.

Over the past decade, the Herculaneum Conservation Project has been credited with saving that nearby ruin. The 20-million-euro ($27.7 million U.S.) effort was a partnership with the Packard Humanities Institute of Los Altos, California, and the British School at Rome.

At Pompeii, the one-year effort will focus on sealing the masonry of the town's homes, walls, and embankments (which are vulnerable to rainfall) and establishing better security and adding video cameras at the site, located in the organized-crime-ridden part of southern Italy.

"This looks like a very encouraging initiative. But we mustn't expect quick fixes. Conservation of ruins on the scale of Pompeii is hugely expensive," says classicist Mary Beard, author of The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found. "The work at Herculaneum is certainly a model, but it is a much smaller site."

Ruined Ruin

Blanketed with ash by the A.D. 79 eruption of Italy's Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii's rediscovery has seen almost three-quarters of its homes, temples, and streets exposed to the elements, with the removal of the deadly, preserving ash that once roughly buried the town.

Once home to perhaps 12,000 people, Pompeii is now one of the world's great tourist sites, seeing more than two million visitors a year. Tourists, thieves, and time have made the 163-acre (66-hectare) ruin more of a ruin, with three walls suffering collapses and vandals stealing a fresco in March.

Herculaneum was a nearby town buried even deeper by Vesuvius, under about 82 feet (25 meters) of ash, and is a smaller tourist site. Roofing and drains made much of the difference in its restoration. And now it is Pompeii's turn.

"The collaboration of archaeologists, conservationists, engineers, [and others] at Herculaneum, organized as a comprehensive team, is absolutely the way forward for Pompeii, and likely many other sites," says classicist Virginia Campbell of the United Kingdom's University of Leeds.

"Yet, the sites are very different in terms of levels of preservation, some of the problems encountered, and of course the vast difference in area," Campbell says. "So while the basic methodology absolutely should be adopted for Pompeii, the results will likely be less noticeable and consume a lot more time and money."

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