Wonders never cease
A little digging can uncover a feast of archeological treasures for cultural tourists, advises Leigh Dayton
Secret city: Monks at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
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