There is perhaps no more famous archeological site than Pompeii Scavi, the excavation area for the buried city of ancient Pompeii. There is a modern Pompeii right next door, so be sure not to confuse them. One is an ancient city founded by the Etruscans, conquered by Rome, that ended in three days of fire and ash. The other has high speed rail.
We took an excellent tour of the city, which I recommend, that lasted about three hours. During that time we wandered the excavated portions of ancient Pompeii. Only a portion of the buried city has been dug up, and that at historic intervals — in the 1700s by the then-king of Naples, with more coordinated excavation occurring in the 1800s and post-WWII. There’s still at least a third of the city entombed under more than twenty feet of ash and debris. Organic matter has largely rotted away — flesh, wood, linens, vanished. But bones and stone remain, and fragments of mosaics, graffiti, and statuary which tell vibrant tales of the art and culture of the times. It’s one of the most important archeological sites in the world, so after some debate we decided that we couldn’t miss it, despite the inconvenience in our itinerary.
Pompeii is still a fragment of itself. Despite being amazingly well-preserved, it is a ruin. Most of the buildings lack roofs — crushed in by rock and debris, or damaged during excavation. But the streets are a marvel of engineering. The first thing you notice is the flat stone surface. In places it’s been filled back in so that there is no danger of tripping, though in others weather and erosion mean large gaps between the rocks that can catch a tired toe. Where the stone was softer or the road uneven you can still see the ruts of wagon wheels, worn there after centuries. Those wheels would have been made of wood, with an outer ring of iron. Did they repair the roads, replace the flat stones when they had worn down enough? Is that why some stones are flat and others gullied?
On either side of the straight streets, raised sidewalks offer refuge from the ghost of carts past. At intersections, large stones form crosswalks, gaps carefully calculated to allow those carts passage. Some streets are obviously pedestrian only — an ancient concept made new again in American cities. Doorways open between the walls, some with raised lintels — shops, our guide explained, open in the day and closed at night by heavy wooden boards. Others open into courtyards hidden behind oversized metal doors — the residences of landowners, the layout reminding me a little of a traditional Chinese garden such as the one I toured through in Portland, Oregon. In the entrance, a wide pool to catch water, the memory of a skylight above. On the remaining walls, lead pipes climb — they had running water in these houses, and their mansions are more than one story, containing multiple rooms for sleeping and socializing. Ruined rooftop gardens catch the breeze outside of abandoned upstairs lounges.
Some of the shops are bakeries. Back when having fire in your house wasn’t necessarily a good thing, what with the dangers of property damage and the excess heat in an already hot climate, most people didn’t have big ovens. Some of the shops are lunch counters — the marble counters gleams still, where careful hands have cleaned them, and one can imagine oil lamps under the soup pots keeping them hot. Flaking advertisements painted on the walls show a snapshot of what may have been sold inside. Scraped graffiti like the letters carved into a bathroom stall sometimes dot these frescoes. The ancient faces of gods stare down on the street.
There were no glass windows in ancient Pompeii — parts of the buildings would have been open to the air even when they were whole. Ancient bath houses had hot running water and contain evidence of saunas. Public fountains provided clean drinking water for everyone. Some of them still do. I drank from two while I was there. The water was cold and sweet. I wandered the ruins of temples, of the public square, imagining the colorful fruits and vegetables of the market. Luxuries were communal for many, but luxuries existed that wouldn’t be seen again in the Western world for hundreds of years once Rome fell. Of course, Pompeii wouldn’t live to see that. The city was entombed in 79 AD. Rome was sacked in the 400s.
So often, our ancient cities are razed and built over, buildings scavenged, layouts erased. Things have certainly vanished from ancient Pompeii — building materials and statues and art, taken to line coffers and decorate museums. But so much remains. It is a fascinating glimpse into another life, another time, and one that could feed an author’s imagination for decades. I am very glad I went, and only wish I could have spent more time wandering these ruins.
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