Preserving the Ruins of Pompeii

Giorgio Cosulich / Getty Images

Trying to save the famous ruins from crumbling.

In A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted, leaving Pompeii buried under a cloud of ash and pumice and then, paradoxically, preserving it for centuries underground. The excavation of Pompeii started more than 200 years ago, and with it began the city’s second destruction. First came the elements (wind, sun, rain and snow), then the tourists (nearly three million each year), which, combined with decades of poorly funded, understaffed and sometimes downright neglectful preservation practices, have left the UNESCO World Heritage site a shambles.

In November 2010, the Schola Armaturarum, a large building known popularly (if incorrectly) as the House of the Gladiators, collapsed, due to water damage. Several weeks later, the House of the Moralist’s garden wall crashed to the ground, followed in rapid succession by an old shop and the House of the Small Lupanare. Last October, a section of the wall surrounding Pompeii crumbled. According to Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, a Cambridge classics professor who has been directing a major conservation project on nearby Herculaneum since 2001, these are just the issues we’ve heard about. “There are dozens of collapses that have not attracted public attention,” he says. “I started working there in the early 1980s and by the early ’90s, I’d become aware of just how much it was falling to pieces. I’ve been saying there’s a crisis for at least the last 20 years.”

Despite the problems, what the site desperately needs is not a massive overhaul but more mundane maintenance—pulling weeds, patching frescoes, shoring up roofs and establishing good drainage. Fortunately, the recent crises have led the European Union to pledge nearly $140 million to the cause, and Wallace-Hadrill says the Italian authorities are finally planning to deal with the preservation more diligently.

“Fading and crumbling are part of the life cycle of an archaeological site,” he says. “We will never save Pompeii completely, but we can do a hell of a lot better.”