Pompeii: Rebirth of the dead city of Italy that almost died again | Technology


By FRANCES D’EMILIO – Associated Press

POMPEI, Italy (AP) — In a few horrific hours, Pompeii was transformed from a bustling city into an ash-scented wasteland choked by a furious volcanic eruption in AD 79.

Then, in this century, the excavated Roman city appeared alarmingly close to a second death, beset by decades of neglect, mismanagement and insufficient systematic maintenance of the heavily visited ruins. The 2010 collapse of a hall where gladiators trained nearly cost Pompeii its coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

But these days, Pompeii is experiencing the beginnings of a renaissance.

Excavations undertaken as part of technical stabilization strategies to avoid new collapses give a series of revelations about the daily life of the inhabitants of Pompeiias the prism of social class analysis is increasingly applied to new discoveries.

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Under the direction of the new director of the archaeological park, innovative technology is helping to restore some of Pompeii’s nearly erased glories and limit the effects of a new threat: climate change.

Gabriel Zuchtriegelan archaeologist appointed general manager 10 months ago compares the rapid deterioration of Pompeii, from the 1970s, to “a plane that crashes and is in real danger of breaking up”.

The Great Pompeii Project, an injection of around 105 million euros ($120 million) of European Union funds – provided they are spent quickly and efficiently by 2016 – has helped prevent the ruins no longer degrade.

“It’s all been spent and well spent,” Zuchtriegel said in an interview on a terrace with Pompeii’s open-air Grand Theater as a backdrop.

But with future conservation issues inevitable for building remains discovered 250 years ago, new technologies are crucial in this “battle against time”, the 41-year-old told The Associated Press.

Climatic extremes, including increasingly intense rainfall and periods of scorching heat, could threaten Pompeii.

“Some conditions change and we can already measure that,” Zuchtriegel said.

It would be impossible to trust human eyes to discern the signs of weather-induced deterioration on the mosaic floors and frescoed walls in around 10,000 excavated rooms of villas, workshops and humble houses. Thus, artificial intelligence and drones will provide real-time data and images.

Experts will be alerted to “take a closer look and possibly intervene before things happen, before going back to this situation where buildings are collapsing,” Zuchtriegel said.

Since last year, AI and robots have been tackling what would otherwise be impossible tasks – reassembling frescoes that have crumbled into tiny fragments. Among the goals is the reconstruction of the frescoed ceiling of the House of Painters at Work, broken by Allied bombing during World War II.

The robots will also help repair damaged frescoes in the Schola Armaturarum – the gladiator barracks – once symbolizing the modern deterioration of Pompeii and now celebrated as proof of its rebirth. The weight of tons of unexcavated sections of the city pressed against the excavated ruins, combined with accumulated rainfall and poor drainage, caused the structure to collapse.

Seventeen of Pompeii’s 66 hectares (42 of 163 acres) remain unexcavated, buried deep under lava rock. A long-standing debate is whether they should stay there.

At the start of the 19th century, the approach was “let’s … excavate all of Pompeii,” Zuchtriegel said.

But in the decades before the Great Pompeii Project, “there was something like a moratorium – because we have so many problems that we won’t dig any more,” Zuchtriegel said. “And it was almost like, psychologically speaking, depression.”

His predecessor, Massimo Osanna, took a different approach: targeted excavations during stabilization measures to prevent further collapses.

“But it was a different kind of excavation. It was part of a larger approach where we have the combination of protection, search and accessibility,” Zuchtriegel said.

After the Gladiator Hall collapsed, engineers and landscapers created gradual slopes off the ground overlooking the excavated ruins with netting, preventing the newly formed “hillsides” from collapsing.

Towards the end of Via del Vesuvio, one of Pompeii’s cobbled streets, work in 2018 revealed an upmarket domus, or house, with a bedroom wall decorated with a small sensual fresco representing the Roman god Jupiter disguised as a swan and impregnating Leda, the mythical queen of Sparta and mother of Helen of Troy.

But if visitors stand on their tiptoes to gaze past the marvelous fresco on the house’s jagged walls, they will see how the back rooms remain embedded beneath the newly “stabilized” unexcavated rim of Pompeii.

Nearby is the crowd favorite find from the shoring project – a “thermopolium” corner with a counter configuration similar to today’s salad and soup bar arrangements.

This fast-food spot is the only one uncovered with frescoes in bright hues of mustard yellow and the ubiquitous Pompeii red decorating the base of the counter – seemingly advertising the chef’s specialties and including bawdy graffito. Judging by the organic leftovers found in the containers, the menu featured concoctions with ingredients like fish, snails and goat meat.

Fast street food was probably a mainstay for the vast majority of Pompeians not wealthy enough to have kitchens.

Archaeologists are increasingly using social class and gender analyzes to help interpret the past.

When they explored an ancient villa on the outskirts of Pompeii, a 16 square meter (172 square foot) room emerged. It had served as a storage room for the villa and as a dormitory for a family of slaves. Crammed into the room were three beds, made of rope and wood. Judging by the dimensions, a shorter bed was for a child.

When the find was announced last year, Zuchtriegel described it as a “window into the precarious reality of people who rarely appear in historical sources” about Pompeii.

This winter, an afternoon guided tour is offered at sites otherwise not open to the public. One of these offers is the Maison du Petit Cochon. On a wall in a small kitchen is a whimsical painted design of a pig’s head with a prominent snout.

The park’s ambitions go further: the neighboring city of Naples and its sprawling suburbs around Mount Vesuvius suffer from organized crime and high youth unemployment, which is pushing many young people to emigrate.

Thus, the archaeological park brings together students from the region’s most elite institutions and working-class neighborhoods who attend trade schools to perform a classical Greek play at the Grand Theatre.

“We…can try to contribute to a change,” Zuchtriegel said.

There are also plans to create public walking grounds in an unexcavated section of ancient Pompeii that until recently had been used as an illegal dump and even a marijuana farm.

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