When he was a teen-ager, Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill visited Italy and became fascinated by the ancient Romans and the remnants of the world they left behind. As director of the British School at Rome and head of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, he is on a mission to preserve Herculaneum, Pompeii’s neighbor and the other, lesser-known victim of the A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius. In the following interview, he discusses the site and his work there.
Secrets of the Dead: The tragedy at Herculaneum is overshadowed in the public eye by Pompeii. Why is that?
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill: For numerous reasons, Pompeii has become a name recognized around the globe over the last two centuries. Herculaneum suffers from being the “little sister.” Crucially, there were no excavations in Herculaneum in the 19th century, when the great modern myth of Pompeii – Last Days of Pompeii – was formed.
SotD: What makes the Herculaneum Conservation Project important or unique?
Wallace-Hadrill: There have been many important scientific projects at Herculaneum since Amedeo Maiuri relaunched excavations in 1927. Ours is not even conceived as an excavation project, but as a conservation project. It is unique because it is not a dig, but a conservation project, which aims to preserve what has already been excavated, but which even so generates abundant new archaeological knowledge. If it is innovative, it is in undertaking conservation not through the state, but as a privately-funded, private-public collaboration. It is also innovative to the extent in which it involves multi-disciplinary collaboration between specialists. In particular, we believe that archaeology and conservation should not be seen as distinct and separate activities, but as mutually interdependent.
SotD: What are some of the challenges you and your team have faced in conserving the site?
Wallace-Hadrill:The enormous scale of conservation problems, which affect nearly every structure, and every decorated surface on site. The greatest challenge is to understand why this happens, and to set up procedures and practices to ensure it does not happen again in future.
SotD: How many people are involved in the project?
Wallace-Hadrill: About a dozen specialist consultants, and about 30 people working for them, I would say. The project continues through the year, and numbers fluctuate according to the precise work in hand.
SotD: Since the filming of Herculaneum Uncovered, have there been any other extraordinary finds on the level of the painted Amazon statue?
Wallace-Hadrill: Well, our aim is not to make dramatic discoveries! But the most important new work concerns the organic and other material currently being recovered from the so-called sewer under the Insula Orientalis II. It is the largest such deposit, to our knowledge, to be scientifically excavated, and promises fundamental insights into ancient Roman diet.
SotD:What is most impressive to you about your finds at Herculaneum?
Wallace-Hadrill: That we may find works of art as outstanding as the Amazon’s head, but also a rich assemblage of everyday objects, like cooking wares and lamps, in enormous quantities.
SotD: In the film, you mention that modern houses are built right on top of Herculaneum and that this impedes further excavation of the site. To what extent are the local residents involved in the project?
Wallace-Hadrill: We are in close contact with the local municipal authority, with whom, together with the archaeological superintendency, we have formed an association. Among its aims are to promote closer links between the local population and the site, to understand local perceptions, and encourage a sense of “ownership” of local heritage.
SotD: The Sunday Times reported that a study published by the American journal Geophysical Research in February 2007 stated that the next eruption of Vesuvius could kill at least 300,000 people, almost 20 times more than died in Pompeii in A.D. 79. Why do you think people are willing to tempt fate and live so close to Vesuvius today?
Wallace-Hadrill: There have been over the last five millennia at least three eruptions so grave as to wipe out entirely extensive zones around Vesuvius. History shows that inhabitants always return, attracted by the exceptional fertility of the area, and the outstanding trading opportunities of the Bay of Naples. All over the world, people live with risk.
SotD: Ancient Rome has long been a part of our modern popular culture, from recent Hollywood films like Gladiator to theme venues like Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Why do you think people are so fascinated with the Romans and their world?
Wallace-Hadrill: Because they know that our world, too, is only a phase, and despite all its great achievements, will end.