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Research in the shadow of Vesuvius

Pompeii is one of the most visited archeological sites in the world, but its future is uncertain. Exposure to wind and weather is causing more and more irreparable damage to the ruins of the ancient city and threatens to wipe out all traces of its existence.

To fight this process of degradation, a group of leading European research institutions has united in the Pompeii Sustainable Preservation Project, coordinated by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics IBP and the Chair of Restoration at Technische Universität München (TUM). Together, they aim to define new strategies for the sustainable conservation and long-term preservation of the site.

Mount Vesuvius, which is still active today, towers over the ruins of Pompeii, the city it buried under a thick layer of ash and pumice in the year 79 AD. Fraunhofer IBP

Roof coverings and other protective structures will be used to shelter the ruins.
Fraunhofer IBP

According to contemporary witnesses, tremors shook the city of Pompeii on the morning of August24 in the year 79 AD, causing buildings to collapse. Then the peak of Mount Vesuvius exploded and an enormous black cloud shot out of its crater. Ash rained down on the city and lava flowed down toward the valley. While the city of Herculaneum, which was located directly beneath the volcano, was immediately buried under mud, lava, and water, most of the victims in Pompeii were killed by lethal phosphorous gases or were crushed by boulders.

By nightfall, Pompeii was completely covered by a layer of ash and pumice six to seven meters thick. And there lay the once bustling city, which had been shaped by various ancient cultures (Greeks, Samnites , Romans) over the seven hundred years and more of its existence, undisturbed by the weather and the onward march of history.

Its protective covering of lava and pumice meant that this ancient city in the Gulf of Naples was fully preserved– temple, laundry, brothel, the lot. It wasn’t until around 1600 that the buried city was accidentally discovered during drainage work. Archaeologists started exploring Pompeii in earnest at the end of the 18th century, and continuous excavations that extended right into the 1970s uncovered a good two-thirds of the ancient city. But Pompeii’s ruins are sadly in danger. Rediscovery of the city has set in train its second downfall as what remains of it falls prey to the ravages of time.

The annual flow of over two-and-a-half million tourists has also left its mark. Frescoes and mosaics are exposed to adverse environmental and weather conditions, and painstakingly uncovered buildings are already collapsing in some cases. “That breaks our hearts. Despite the constant restoration work that goes on in Pompeii, the sheer size of the city means that new efforts are needed all the time if we are to successfully carry out long-term, sustainable conservation work across the entire area,” explain restorer Dr. Ralf Kilian, head of the Group “Preservation of Historic Monuments and Preventive Conservation ” group at the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics IBP, and archaeologist Dr. Albrecht Matthaei. The two men met in 1999 at a project in Pompeii when they were students and resolved to get together to do something for the ancient city. This ambition was finally realized in 2012, when they laid the foundation for the Pompeii Sustainable Preservation Project.

Targeted fundraising
Together with international partners and the responsible local authorities, the scientists are seeking a sustainable solution for the UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the project, it will not just be archeologists and restorers who set the agenda – as has been common practice up to now – but also scientists and engineers.

To be able to implement the ambitious and comprehensive project as soon as possible, the research consortium wants to break new ground for Fraunhofer: “We want to use a targeted fundraising strategy to gain project sponsors who share our passion for preserving this irretrievable testament to western culture, „explains Fraunhofer IBP’s campaign manager Nina Martens.

“The project is ready to go and the Executive Board of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft has given us start-up funding. Now we are looking for investors to donate the ten million euros we require to implement our project over the coming ten years.” The cooperation between different institutions at international level and the capital required for such a project are often very difficult or even impossible to realize by the conventional means of publicly funded research. „Support from sponsors is a fast, unbureaucratic way of raising funds for the project,” says Martens.

The Herculaneum Conservation Project serves as an example of best practice for this kind of funding. For the past ten years, the American David Woodley Packard, son of Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard, a former member of the company’s board of directors, and current president of the Packard Humanities Institute, has been investing in an extremely successful restoration project in the city of Herculaneum, which lies 20 kilometers from Pompeii.

Interdisciplinary preservation cooperation
The project work is intended not only to conserve the World Heritage Site of Pompeii, but also to supply innovative methods and strategies to prevent further deterioration. The new technologies could then be used at other ancient sites as well. Researchers will be able to draw on a vast wealth of experience in realizing these goals. Sharing overall management of the Pompeii Sustainable Preservation Project are Fraunhofer IBP and the Chair of Restoration, Art Technology and Conservation Science at Technische Universität München .

Also participating in the project are the UNESCO-affiliated International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, the universities of Pisa and Oxford, the German Archaeological Institute in Rome, and of course the responsible local authorities and in particular the Sopraintendenza Speciale per iI Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei as the institution with direct responsibility.

“Through interdisciplinary cooperation at international level, we want to get a project off the ground that involves restoring building structures, researching new restoration methods, and training a new generation of scientists all at the same time,” says Kilian, summarizing the project’s ambitious goals.

Instead of concentrating on specific sections such as individual murals or houses with elaborately designed rooms, the partners in the Pompeii Sustainable Preservation Project are pursuing a holistic approach. The fundamental structural unit of the city of Pompeii is the “insula”, a block of buildings surrounded by streets on four sides. Historically correct restoration that respects the city’s nature must be based around this unit and secure everything that has survived there.

A possible starting point for the project could be the insula I,6 with the famous House of the Cryptoporticus (a “cryptoporticus” is a subterranean passageway), which with an area of just under 600 square meters is almost like a city within the city. With its six residences decorated to different degrees of elaboration, its five workshops and shops, and the largest surviving tannery in Pompeii, the insula combines precisely those architectural and socio-historical features that make the city so uniquely valuable as an historical source. Matthaei describes the planned approach as follows:

“The first task will be to document the current building stock. We can then carry out initial emergency work to secure structures on this basis, before going on in further steps to restore the entire insula piece by piece using state-of-the-art methods.”

“The documentation and restoration of the insula is the backbone of the project, „says Kalian. This work will be accompanied by research projects conducted by scientists and classicists. Architects will document the walls that are still standing and write the construction history of the building on this basis. Residents of ancient homes were as keen on renovations as we are today, and the traces left behind by this frequent construction work give us glimpses into how they lived. Archaeologists are planning to search for earlier settlements in the interior of the homes by means of smaller excavations and to find out what happened on the site of the insula before it was erected.

Social historians will study the objects and inscriptions found in the buildings to show how the living space was divided up between rich and poor, men and women, and free citizens, tradesmen, and slaves. At the same time, restorers will document the work they carry out in order to verify how successful the individual restoration measures have been during excavations.

While this work is going on, research will also be carried out that will contribute to developing new technologies and improving conservation methods and the preservation of monuments.

However, this project is not limited to technical issues and developments. Biologists will also be involved, carrying out work such as researching the best way of planting the area to prevent structures becoming overgrown with creepers. That would mean there would be almost no need for the herbicides that have been used in Pompeii until now – very good news, because they damage the buildings.

The year-round work of the scientists and other professionals will be supplemented by a summer academy, which is intended both for outstanding conservation and restoration students and for restorers with no prior experience of working on ancient Roman sites. Expert tutors will impart knowledge about working methods, and participants will later be able to use this in their own projects. In addition, Pompeii courses for schools from the Vesuvius region and international partner schools will awaken the fascination of future generations for the World Heritage Site along with a sense of responsibility for its preservation.

As well as preserving Pompeii, another goal of the extensive project work is to supply new technologies that can subsequently be used at other ancient sites around the world. The partners are agreed on the following ambition for the project: “Together, we want to ensure that in future Pompeii once again plays a central, positive role in the international debate over preservation of and access to of cultural monuments.”

| Fraunhofer-Institute
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