Saturday, 7 December 2013

Place: Ghost Towns

Like I said in my last post, I've been off and about the ancient world of late. Just over a month ago, I went to the Bay of Naples- somewhere I've wanted to go for a long time, but always been too lazy to get to at the beginning or end of an excavation season in Tuscany. Well, it was worth the wait. I got to go with a group of delightful work clients, and a lovely academic, Professor Emeritus Bill Manning from Cardiff (and his gorgeous wife, Maureen).

Very I Claudius...

Before even going to Pompeii, I was in raptures over visiting Paestum- and seeing the paintings from the Tomb of the Diver for real. I could have spent most of my life in the little museum there- just gazing at these Etruscan-but-not-Etruscan things. The temples, too, were fabulous- with the great umbrella pines leering next to them, and the clear blue sky above. It was a great start to the week. Maybe too great- to be honest, the next day's visit to Pompeii was not how I'd expected. Paestum had been almost empty- there was a snake crawling along one of the ruins, it was that quiet.

By contrast, Pompeii was RAMMED. We snuck around the back, and entered via the amphitheatre. It was amazing, but full of floodwater and podgy but sad looking stray dogs.

Then we wandered along some insulae- I don't think I was really taking it in at this point. I was so busy thinking about the present- the day ahead, hoping everyone would get lunch ok, hoping that the site would stay quiet. Then little things started to hit me. The bars. They were so familiar- a strip of boozers like those I used to wobble down as a student, playing stupid games of pub golf. I thought of them full of people, laughing and chatting, pushing and jostling. I couldn't get my head around what had happened to those people- until I saw the casts. Now, I'm not usually someone who is against the display of human remains. But to see the contorted body of a child reaching for its agonised mother, rendered in plaster, being snapped at by a thousand tourists, kind of upset me. There is so much power in these casts. Perhaps too much- the child and its mother didn't feel like people- they felt like a show. And, on reflection, that is so damn wrong. I felt more and more confused as the day went on- the buildings were amazing, but all I could think of was the contrast between the archaeological pleasure and the utter pain of Pompeii's original population. Then we went for lunch at the Autogrill- not quite garum on toast.

The day at Pompeii was great, if weird. And I took some lovely photos (if I say so myself). But it made me nervous about going to Herculaneum. If the preservation of Pompeii had freaked me out so much as to induce intense archaeological guilt, what would 2 storey buildings and boathouses full of skeletons do?

The fateful boathouses...

As it turns out, the complete opposite. I loved Herculaneum. It was pouring with rain- there were floods of water tumbling down the steep entrance to the site. I took the precaution of wearing flipflops, and my feet were soon soaked and spotted with little pieces of ash- something I've only just thought about. The buildings didn't have the same mournful air as Pompeii- that sense of a tourist resort in January, sad and bleak yet still busy- in spite of the huge overlay of ash that was so painfully obvious. While at Pompeii I felt like a voyeur, in other people's houses with a crowd of nosy busybodies, at Herculaneum I felt completely at ease. I'm not sure why- maybe the state of preservation and lack of crowds muffled the effect of the ghost town. Also, the victims of Herculaneum were safely roped off- dignified in their skeletal form, without the fleshy horror of their final torture.

I've been thinking about Pompeii and Herculaneum a lot this week- mostly due to the trouble relentlessly bubbling away in the archaeological organisation of the sites. These incredible places are the ultimate cursed blessing- from the preservation/destruction moment to the politics and pleasure of the present day. I don't know what the answer is, to my own feelings or the more serious issues facing Pompeii, Herculaneum and other sites in Italy in an uncertain financial and political climate. But I'm damned glad I went.

Restoration work at the Villa of the Mysteries...

Have you been to Pompeii? What did it feel like for you? Am I just a soppy oversensitive loser? Get in touch please, do let me know.

1 comment:

  1. I have the same feelings about Pompeii v. Herculaneum and also Villa Oplontis where I was the only one there for most of the time (save a small group of British Tourist). Pompeii was very busy and not as much fun. I also love being able to explore all the nooks and crannies. I am not sure how to save Pompeii, but there was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about actions being done to help the Flavian Amphitheater which if Pompeii weren't so corrupt I think would work:


What do you think? I'd love to hear what's in your head.