Won­ders never cease

A lit­tle dig­ging can un­cover a feast of arche­o­log­i­cal trea­sures for cul­tural tourists, ad­vises Leigh Day­ton

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

Se­cret city: Monks at Angkor Wat, Cam­bo­dia

Pic­ture: Cor­bis

HER­CU­LA­NEUM, Italy: It was the pi­geon poo that re­ally got to Andrew Wal­lace-Hadrill, di­rec­tor of the Bri­tish School at Rome. As a cul­tural his­to­rian and arche­ol­o­gist he knew about the lit­tle sis­ter of Pom­peii and that it was buried by the erup­tion of Mt Ve­su­vius in AD79. In 1992, Wal­lace-Hadrill vis­ited Her­cu­la­neum, a lit­tle Ro­man town nes­tled on a nat­u­ral ter­race above the Bay of Naples, and ad­mired the tiled floor of the House of the Mo­saic Atrium. ‘‘ I took a pho­to­graph and it looked beau­ti­ful,’’ he re­calls. ‘‘ I went back in the late ’ 90s and the pi­geons had moved in and there were drop­pings and bro­ken shells and nuggets of nest all over the floor. Pi­geon drop­pings were smeared down the walls,’’ he ex­plains to me over cap­puc­cino at the Bri­tish School.

To­day, fate, fal­cons and a lit­tle-known phil­an­thropic or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Packard Hu­man­i­ties In­sti­tute, are giv­ing the pi­geons the flick. It hap­pened by chance. Cal­i­for­nia-based David Packard stopped by the Bri­tish School not long af­ter Wal­lace-Hadrill had seen the birds’ con­tri­bu­tion to an­cient his­tory. Packard wanted sug­ges­tions about projects the in­sti­tute could sup­port in Italy and Wal­lace-Hadrill had plenty to of­fer. The re­sult is the Her­cu­la­neum Con­ser­va­tion Project, a joint un­der­tak­ing of the Bri­tish School, the in­sti­tute and the Arche­o­log­i­cal Su­per­in­ten­dent of Pom­peii.

It’s the only ef­fort to con­serve an Ital­ian site headed by a non-Ital­ian ex­pert; Wal­laceHadrill has worked to pull to­gether a multi­na­tional team of arche­ol­o­gists, en­gi­neers, ar­chi­tects and other spe­cial­ists, and they’re rac­ing to doc­u­ment and con­serve the site and its pre­cious arte­facts from the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in­evitable when the past is ex­posed to the present.

Re­dis­cov­ered in 1709 by a farmer dig­ging a well, Her­cu­la­neum is now sur­rounded by the mod­ern town of Er­colano. Nu­mer­ous tour op­tions are avail­able and vis­i­tors can stroll through ar­eas not un­der­go­ing con­ser­va­tion or ex­ca­va­tion. But don’t ex­pect to see the fal­cons on the job. They’re brought to the site when vis­i­tors are scarce. No sense ruf­fling sen­si­tive pi­geon fanciers’ feath­ers. www.her­cu­la­neum.org. POM­PEII, Italy: For seven sum­mers, Aus­tralian arche­ol­o­gist Estelle Lazer sorted bones in an an­cient bath­house in a down­mar­ket cor­ner of Pom­peii. Fe­murs here, skulls there, and bitty baby bones in that pile. Since Pom­peii’s re­dis­cov­ery in the 18th cen­tury, nu­mer­ous skele­tons have been un­earthed and tossed into the bath­house. Over time, many have fallen apart, cre­at­ing anatom­i­cal rub­ble. By sort­ing the re­mains, Lazer was hop­ing to learn more about the vic­tims of Mt Ve­su­vius. Job done, she con­cludes they weren’t just the old and lame, as most ex­perts be­lieved, but rep­re­sented all ages and both sexes.

Lazer’s also full-bot­tle on the fa­mous ‘‘ body casts’’, dis­played on site like macabre sculp­tures. Truly com­pelling, th­ese casts were first made in 1863. Ex­ca­va­tors poured plas­ter into the hard­ened ash cav­i­ties that re­mained af­ter the bod­ies shap­ing them de­cayed.

As we look at ‘‘ bod­ies’’, ap­par­ently reach­ing for the sky in the rigours of death, she tells me it wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily so. Many had al­ready died, mostly as­phyx­i­ated by surg­ing gasses reach­ing 250C. What we’re see­ing are pri­mar­ily the ef­fects of ‘‘ ther­mal co­ag­u­la­tion of the mus­cles’’ af­ter death.

Strolling is a must in Pom­peii, Lazer tells me. ‘‘ A walk around the en­tire site is a good way to get a sense of scale and a feel­ing that this is a place that would have been easy to live in. The Villa of the Mys­ter­ies, with its mag­nif­i­cent wall paint­ings, is a knock­out. Take a map and walk. It’s prob­a­bly best seen with­out a guide,’’ she sug­gests, though tours are eas­ily ar­ranged. ‘‘ The Villa of Oplon­tis, one stop away by train at Torre An­nun­ci­ata, is vast and has the most splen­did wall paint­ings, though be care­ful of your valu­ables when you’re out­side the site.’’ More: Pom­peii andHer­cu­la­neum:In­ter­pret­ingth­eEv­i­dence by Estelle Lazer and Brian Bren­nan (An­cient His­tory Sem­i­nars, 2005). ANGKOR, Cam­bo­dia: Roland Fletcher says the first time he vis­ited the lost city of Angkor he thought, ‘‘ Wow . . . big.’’ It was a hot hu­mid night in 1999 and the Univer­sity of Syd­ney arche­ol­o­gist was be­ing driven around the ru­ins of the Cam­bo­dian city by his col­league Christophe Pot­tier of the French School of Far East­ern Stud­ies in Siem Reap. ‘‘ He drives like a crazy man,’’ Fletcher says, laugh­ing. Since then the pair — mem­bers of the French, Aus­tralian and Cam­bo­dian Greater Angkor Project — have used old­fash­ioned trow­els, hi-tech satel­lite images and ae­rial pho­tos to study the city. They’ve dis­cov­ered that the cap­i­tal of the an­cient Kh­mer em­pire was big­ger than big.

In its hey­day in the 15th cen­tury, Angkor was a vast me­trop­o­lis that sprawled across 1000sq km. A so­phis­ti­cated net­work of canals and reser­voirs con­nected and sup­ported sub­ur­ban vil­lages with the re­li­gious heart of the em­pire, tem­ple com­plexes known as Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat and the royal monastery, Ta Prohm.

As land­mines left be­hind by the for­mer Kh­mer Rouge mil­i­tary regime are grad­u­ally

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