Conservation And Preservation Of The Pompeiian Architecture

Essay, Research Paper The ancient Roman city of Pompeii was buried by a volcano in 79 AD. That should be enough to destroy any town, but the city’s buildings were in fact protected by this coating of ash, and although it would never be inhabited again, it now bears witness to an incredible period of history. For thousands of years, the city lay virtually undisturbed, and protected from the elements and erosion.

Essay, Research Paper

The ancient Roman city of Pompeii was buried by a volcano in 79 AD. That should be enough to destroy any town, but the city’s buildings were in fact protected by this coating of ash, and although it would never be inhabited again, it now bears witness to an incredible period of history. For thousands of years, the city lay virtually undisturbed, and protected from the elements and erosion. Excavations carried out over the last centuries have allowed the city to be once again buzzing with people, and even if this notion may appear romantic, the city is also affected by the elements once again, and that is a major problem.

Since it was freed from its ash coffin, Pompeii has not fared well. The millions of yearly visitors, who flock to the site to see firsthand the living legend that is Pompeii, are causing erosion in a way that was not anticipated. The balance that had kept the city protected for so long has been disturbed, and it is now a victim of an unacceptable degree of damages.

This two-part project will look at this problem. Part one will explain the main causes and nature of the damages: World War II air raids, the earthquakes (especially 23/11/80), vegetation, water, erosion by tourists, atmospheric pollution, and restorations. Most of the information for this paper comes from Jean-Pierre Adam’s book, D?gradation et restauration de l’architecture Pomp?ienne, which is a very thorough and detailed description of the degradation of Pompeii. Part two will deal with what is or should be done to prevent further damage and restore what has been lost, which includes proper restoration, control of tourists, and effective management of the site and funds.

Section 1: Causes and Nature of the damages:

Ideally, Pompeii should be in a bubble, where only highly trained archaeologists and experts could come in contact with it with gloved hands. But since that is impossible, some problems arise from having such a large area unprotected.

A) Air raids of World War II:

The bombing of several buildings during the second great conflict of the century caused damages that are still visible in some of the less known buildings, even after some restoration work.

B) Earthquakes:

The region of Italy where Pompeii is located is subject to many earthquakes and that causes a permanent threat to the aging architecture of the site. With each new earthquake, the structures become weaker and in a more eminent danger of collapsing.

On November 23, 1980, an earthquake of relative lightness hit Pompeii. The earthquake was more then what the fragile architecture could sustain and severe damage was done, especially in region VII. Walls, roofs, and columns collapsed, often in a domino effect, one wall collapsing on another and so on. Many walls also suffered from cracks. The damage from this earthquake could have easily been limited had the structures been maintained regularly.

C) Vegetation:

The Pompeian soil is very fertile due to an array of minerals. Not only is the soil rich, but the region receives more then its fair share of rain and sunshine. That would not be a problem if the area in question was a farmer’s field, but for the ancient town of Pompeii, it is a major source of concern. These favorable conditions are all it takes for vegetation to thrive wherever dirt or dust permits. Amongst the species of plants that cause problems: the acanthus, whose much-used leaf ornates many a Corinthian column; the wild strawberry; the ivy; the field mint; and thyme. (See annex 1 for a complete list) Lichens and mosses are also found on the site.

Plants in Pompeii are found everywhere: on bare soil, paved roads, and walls. The plants found on bare and open areas, like the forum, and the palestrae are the easiest to deal with. There is little risk of damaging a structure and plants can often be used in these areas has an element of decoration. Also, in many of these, the passage of more then two million visitors yearly assures that the plants do not thrive. It is in the large open areas closed to the public, where the soil is thicker and attention minimal that plants grow with the most freedom. Some of the houses with restricted access have been transformed in virtual greenhouses, with walls and roofs keeping in moisture and heat.

Many of the paved roads are not affected by vegetation, some plants being unable to even settle between the stones. But roots from nearby trees have been known to affect the alignment of the pavement stones. The problem is more serious when considering the effect even the smallest plants can have on mosaic. If a mosaic is intact, no plant will be able to take hold on it, especially if it is a wall mosaic. But if a piece falls of, say from pressure from an outside root of a tree, plants will grow in the dirt that will be wind-blown in the hole and will detach even more pieces. This can happen in a matter of hours; just think of how fast dandelions grow on your lawn!

Plants can also be found growing on walls, taking root in cracks or between bricks, and in the form of ivy. (See annex 2 for a representation of an affected wall.)

D) Water:

Water, not only has a nourishing agent to the vegetation, will cause damage on its own. It causes water stains on wall-paintings. It makes deposits of minerals on walls. There is also the repetitive action of the rain drops on the walls which first erodes the coats of pigments, and then of the mortar that holds the wall together. Has if that wasn’t enough, when combined with the atmospheric pollution, it can become a powerful acid that damages marble and stone. When the mortar contains argyle, the material absorbs water, expends and can cause cracks and even collapsing of walls. Even if the houses are protected by a roof, water can seep in thru the base of a wall, which explains why most paintings are damaged on the lower portion.

E) Sun:

The sun causes the paintings to fade. Since many houses have lost their ceilings after so many years, it is easy to guess the damage it would do.

F) Erosion by Tourists:

Not surprisingly, Pompeii is a very famous site to visit. With an average of more then 5000 visitors every day, with numbers sometimes reaching 22 000, like on Easter Monday, the flow of tourist has to be taken into account.

The thousands of daily visitors, even if they were on their best behavior, would still cause problems simply by walking around! Ancient unprotected sidewalks have been used through, often leaving lead plumbing exposed, which is in turn broken, damaged or goes missing. In most other Roman cities, plumbing would not have been so close to the surface, but this plumbing was temporally installed after the earthquake in 62. Those same sidewalks would have suffered the same fate in Antiquity, but a sidewalk would never have gone without reparation and maintenance for millennia back then! Visitors also leave their traces on walls, those giant backpacks scraping against walls, fingers running on ancient frescoes. The passage of visitors is more obvious in small areas, and is less evident on large areas, where the damage is spread out.

There is also the problem of vandalism and robbery. People leave their names, usually on painted surfaces to make sure their legacy to posterity is readable. People also take home little pieces of marble or of a mosaic, a task made easy by the work of plants. Others just steal entire frescoes, like in 1977, when 14 frescoes were hacked out of the house of the Gladiators. “It should have been a warning, but nearly 600 more items were stolen from Pompeii over the next 15 years, according to the Italian Archeoclub, a presevationist group.”

There is also the problem of familiarity felt by the inhabitants of the region. It is hard to be very considerate when Pompeii is the place you go every Sunday for picnic, almost like a public park. Usually, these groups are only there for the view and will try to isolate themselves from the tourists, often taking shelter in the restricted areas, where destruction of the wall covering by a ball thrown on the wall was observed. Since these areas are supposed to be restricted, guards do not patrol them has much, and visitors often go unnoticed. The “Public Park” feel causes also a cleaning problem: imagine twenty thousand people in a small town during a holiday. Archaeologists end up having to do the cleaning work themselves, which is ridiculous.

G) Atmospheric Pollution:

The bay of Naples has one of the highest concentrations of population in Italy, with factories, cars, and the likes. Like mentioned above, their pollution falls back under the form of acid rain, which greatly affects marble and limestone. But the Pompeian architecture was mostly built with local volcanic material, which is almost unaffected by the acid rain. The problem lies in the painted wall covering, usually high in calcium content; they react like limestone and dissolve.

There is also the problem of the proximity of the Naples-Salerne Highway which is next to the site; the pollution from trucks and cars are bad enough, but the constant vibrations from the passing vehicles also weakens the structures. The tourist buses that leave the motor running, sometimes for hours, while waiting for the tourists to come back is also a major problem.

H) Restorations:

This should not be here, but bad restoration is a cause of damage. Often, temporary conservation attempts have become permanent, and are too weak and not up to the task. Poor-quality wood is often used in an attempt to save money, but it just rots or brakes under the pressure, often damaging what it was suppose to protect in the first place. The delicate task of protecting wall painting was also sometime botched and led to more damage in the end.

Section 2: What is or should be done to prevent further damage and restore what has been lost:

One of the most important thing to remember when doing conservation work is that every thing we do must be possible to undo should a better technique arise.

A) Restoration:

All walls need to be consolidated. This is a difficult task since we must be able to preserve every part of the wall which is still standing. Cement can only be used in total reconstruction since it would be more solid then the rest of the wall and would probably make it collapse during an earthquake. Epoxy can also be used, but is very expensive and tends not to work has well as wanted. It is mostly used to “glue” back on fallen blocks and fill in cracks. When doing any kind of restoration or reconstruction, it is important to use the same material used two thousand years ago as much as

possible. Fortunately, the material is easy to find since it was mostly local stuff, even if sometimes, the colors don’t match exactly.

A problem restorers run into is that we are not always sure what the structure looked like two thousand years ago. So it is mostly educated guess work on their part. But when it comes to post-1980 (after the earthquake), every thing can be restored back to the original state since its appearance is well documented.

In the case of painted coating, it is a little more complicated. It is now easy to restore painted coating in labs, but the in situ restorations are still very hard to do. We must start with restoring the wall itself, working from the outside of the wall which is usually in worst shape. The method that seems to give the best results is the injection of a solution that will regenerate the ancient mortar instead of replacing it. Solvents are used to clean and glue the chipping paint. The solvents are all very toxic, and, since the restorers need to work on big surfaces in closed areas, it can sometimes be dangerous for them.

The humidity needs to be controlled as well. The first thing to do, is replacing or restoring the existing roofing, or build a new one. That will usually protect the inside of a house from water damage. Most houses have a problem with the bases of their walls which are not waterproof. The water seeps in the wall from the base, which accounts for the frescoes being more damaged on the bottom portion. There is experimenting being done on rendering the base of the walls safe from water with injections of epoxy, but the usual method is the introduction of lead sheets at the base of the wall that prevent the water from making its way up.

Wood was a material widely used for construction in Pompeii and one that was never meant to last for millennia. Since it is often a crucial element of the construction, it must be replaced if the houses and different buildings are meant to stay open to tourists and archaeologists alike. Depending on what essence and where it is used, the replacement wood will last anywhere from three to two hundred years. There are three different categories: contact with ground, without contact but exposed, and without contact and covered. The wood which is in contact with the ground will decay faster because of an increased exposure to water and air. “Without-contact-but-exposed” wood will last longer but not as long as a piece covered by a ceiling or a wall. Wood is chosen according to its density: oak, elm and chestnut have to highest density, while fir and poplar have the lowest. Another thing to consider is in what size the wood can be available; green oak has the highest density, but is very small, so a less dense oak is used which comes in bigger pieces. The price is also an important factor, since the budget for restoration is ridiculously small. Before being used in restoration, the wood is treated to make it last longer and to protect it against insects. A compound of chromium salt and copper is used to dry and preserve the wood, but it leaves the treated piece with a greenish tint. To keep moss and crawlers away, the wood is impregnated with pentachlorophenol. All these treatments mean that treated oak and chestnut used in a protected area can be expected to last up to five hundred years. But all this costs a lot of money, and cheaper wood has often been utilized in the past to cut down on expenses. We now know that it was not a very good idea.

The control of vegetation is primordial. Strangely enough, the best way to fight weed is to grow grass! In open spaces, if it is well tended to, its roots will take all the room in the soil and make it hard for other plants to grow in the same area. Trees do not really cause a problem if they are far enough from houses and streets, and they ad a sense of serenity to the city. The biggest problem is with the plants in walls. They must be removed, but we must never try to remove the roots, since doing so might damage the wall further. As for cracks and holes on walls where plants grow, the best way is to prevent the plants from growing in the first place by covering them with either epoxy or cement, or whatever is appropriate. Although the town could be sprayed for weed, the only really effective product would damage the sensitive architecture and can therefore not be used. Pompeii does have gardeners, but they tend to the replicas of the ancient gardens in the villas. Pompeii needs a staff of full time gardeners who could detect problem plants and deal with them before it is too late.

B) Control of Tourists:

Although it is a good idea to limit the areas open to the public for the time being, it would not be a good idea to close Pompeii to the public either. We must find a way for the locals to stop seeing Pompeii has just another place to go play ball on week-ends, to loose this familiarity, and to start taking the preservation of the site at heart. With proper education, visitors can be a great tool in achieving the goal of preserving Pompeii for future generations. A bigger percentage of the admission fee is now being used for preservation of the site.

The guards are too few in numbers and do not care enough to really do their job. Here again, education could make all the difference. Visitors should not be allowed to visit the site unaccompanied; mandatory tours should be imposed to make sure no one gets into the restricted areas. Guards should patrol these areas more often and fines should be given to those visitors who do not follow the rules.

The problem with the buses running for hours just to keep the air-conditioning on while waiting for the tourists to come back can be easily resolved: just make it illegal, and, again, fine those who do not comply with the rules.

C) Effective Management of Site Funds:

In 1996, the region of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Torre Annunziata was included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list of most endangered sites. By having the region labeled has a World Heritage Site, Italy was morally bound to step up plans to restore the ruins. The government allowed Pompeii to keep and use a larger portion of the admission fee for conservation, which was a much-awaited permission.

In 1995, Pompeii got a new superintendent, Prof. Pietro Giovanni Guzzo. He replaced “Baldassare Conticello, the previous superintendent, who sought to bring in tourist money by keeping Pompeii in the news with a steady stream of flashy discoveries. But such massive new digs sap badly needed money from the restoration and maintenance of disintegrating structures and the publication results, and add to the number of artifacts and buildings demanding conservation.” The new superintendent seems to be well aware of the condition of Pompeii and seems to have a good idea of what needs to be done to stop its slow destruction. He put a halt on projects for excavating the third of the city which is still under the ash, and he will therefore be able to concentrate his efforts on the excavated part which is in danger.

In 1997, there were only 34 out of 163 acres opened, half of what was accessible in the 1950’s. The rest is simply too fragile for the public to visit. The superintendent estimated “that a once-over restoration would cost 500 billion lire ($310 million) and take ten years; at the moment, the entire annual budget is only 5 billion lire ($3.1 million).”


The problem of Pompeii is one that must be addressed by the Italian government and the Classical community without any further delays. Pompeii is unique and should not have gone so long without proper care. We saw in the project how the bulk of the problem comes from preventable conditions which have gone unchecked because of a lack of funds. Vegetation can be controlled, and so can tourists. Earthquakes and storms cannot be prevented, but their effects can be anticipated and measures can be taken to limit the damages. We saw how walls can be consolidated with epoxy and cement, and how wall covering can be protected with careful restoration and protection from sun and water damage. We also saw how the best way to treat the weed problem is to grow grass in large open areas and to cover holes and cracks on walls to keep plants from taking up residence. It was also explained how the problem of pollution could easily be addressed with education of the visitors and enforced with small fines. We now know that it is not worth using cheaper products in terms of restoration, but we must still deal with past errors.

The problem in treating the problems is that there is a lack of money. Although the Italian government as promised many time an increase in budget for Pompeii, those promises have yet to materialize, if not for the small increase in the percentage kept from the admission fees. The arrival of Prof. Pietro Giovanni Guzzo as superintendent is great news for Pompeii since he seems to be the first to take the problems of conservation seriously. There is an unfounded feeling that Pompeii will last forever and that all this can wait. This could easily be addressed by educating the public: people need to realize the eminent danger in which is Pompeii, and the effects their actions have. Even if the future of this beloved ancient city may appear grim sometimes, it is best to remember that it is not too late for Pompeii.

Once the problems and their solutions have been identified, it is easier to go ahead and get different areas of expertise working with the local and federal government of Italy. Let us simply hope that they do that as soon as possible.


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