The Roman city of Pompeii is one of the most famous and most fascinating archaeological remains in the whole world. On 24th and 25th August in the year 79 AD this city was overwhelmed by an eruption of the nearby volcano Vesuvius, which meant the end of the city.

For hundreds of years excavations have taken place in the thick layers of ash which engulfed the city. At first it was a case of looting but later the research became more scientific so that, fortunately, a great deal was preserved. Nowadays a large part of the site has been excavated, though not all by a very long way, and archaeologists are constantly making new finds. Nevertheless, what we see there today is very impressive and provides an incredible insight into daily life in the year 79 AD.

Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background

The inhabitants of Pompeii

Remarkably, the hot volcanic ash which engulfed Pompeii in 79 AD helped to preserve some of the human remains as cavities in the ash. The bodies themselves have completely disappeared. Archaeologists later filled these cavities to make plaster casts so that we can once again view them as complete bodies of men, women and children. From their postures we can see that they were caught suddenly by the sheer volume of ash spewed out by the volcano, and everything happened very quickly.

Pompeii, body casts

Pompeii and Herculaneum

Today Pompeii is an uninhabited archaeological site and the same applies to Herculaneum, a smaller and lesser known town some 15 kilometres northwest of Pompeii. This town also suffered through the Vesuvius eruption but, while Pompeii was home to some 20,000 people, Herculaneum had only 5000 inhabitants as it was a suburb of Neapolis (present day Naples). But the two sites had one thing in common, the abruptness of their ruin. In Pompeii archaeologists found evidence of petrified and frozen corpses at a depth of 8 metres, but in Herculaneum the depth was 20 metres.
Because time suddenly stood still, everything has remained in a good condition and the life of the people in Pompeii can easily be read. Paintings still hang on the walls, baskets of fruit still stand on the table. Species of plants can be identified. Nowhere is there a better example of Roman culture to be found that in Pompeii.

Much has been perfectly preserved.

Pompeii, a wealthy city

While Herculaneum was more involved with trade and fishing, Pompeii was more commercial. Pompeii was a link in the trade chain and was home to countless craftsmen – metalworkers, potters, glass blowers among others. Traces of other cultures still remained but Roman customs were most important. Alongside a host of other facilities, Pompeii boasted a large amphitheatre for gladiatorial contests. This amphitheatre was built by a Roman speculator and could hold 20,000 people. Two other theatres catered for plays and music, and there were also some 100 pubs and taverns where you could slake your thirst. Pompeii had three bath-houses and a fourth was under construction. There were also at least 10 temples and – close to the large forum – a great basilica.
The streets of Pompeii were paved with volcanic stones and had gutters at the sides to drain away waste water. Fountains stood in the streets to provide people and animals with water. Houses varied greatly, some were beautifully decorated with many rooms and interior quarters, others simple apartments or small rooms behind workplaces.

Streets were paved with volcanic stones and there are traces of cart tracks. When it rained and streets were wet, you could use stepping stones to cross.

Some inhabitants returned

A large part of the population fled Pompeii in time and returned to the city a few weeks after the disaster, where they found only a bare surface. Some inhabitants began to dig by hand among the bits and pieces which still stuck out above the lava. They dug vertical passages with side passages to go from one room to another in order to remove their own possessions – and presumably also those belonging to many others.
Archaeologists who later excavated the houses found some where the marble had been stripped from the walls and pictures and other ornaments had been removed. Some of these looting expeditions may have been profitable but others probably ended in disaster through poisonous gasses under the ash and collapsing tunnels. These dangers only increased the death toll from the eruption and the excavations soon stopped.

Well preserved houses


Treasure hunts continued for a long time and that was to the detriment of the rest of Pompeii. Even Alcubierre, the man in charge of excavations from 1738 to 1765, was in fact a looter like all the others. He stripped one site after the other and dug tunnels all over the place. Sites which did not produce results quickly enough were abandoned and he plundered houses and temples. Frescoes were hacked from the walls, and vases, coins, paintings and other objects were carried off and stored elsewhere.

Excavating was even accelerated by the use of explosives. These methods were of great benefit to Charles III, King of Naples, who was admired throughout Europe for his growing collection of antiquities. When someone important visited the excavations, a few vases would be concealed in advance to make it look as if such discoveries took place all day every day.

In 1798 the area passed into other hands. Ten years later when Napoleon was crowned as Emperor, he sent his sister Caroline and her husband Joachim Murat to live in Naples as his representatives to carry out his orders. He increased activity still further until 500 workmen were busy at the site. Caroline particularly was very interested in the excavations, because of the jewels and works of art which were being discovered there. Serious excavations only began after 1860. The area was then owned by King Victor Emmanuel II, who employed a small army of excavators working under Giuseppe Fiorelli. He remained in charge until 1875.

Fiorelli’s approach was one of discipline and orderliness. First he had all the rubble removed which had piled up over many years, and laid a drainage system to remove rainwater. When he was sure where the outermost city walls lay, he planned everything on a map divided into zones and districts. This showed all houses and buildings and numbered them in a logical system. As each house was exposed, he wrote down how it appeared and its precise location. All valuable finds were taken to a museum or a specific storage place.

In this way the ancient city gradually appeared and began a new life. Because almost all of the city and the villas had been engulfed, most of them could now be almost completely exposed. Fiorelli demonstrated the possibilities of excavating and his example was followed by later archaeologists. This led not only to a clear picture of an old city but also to a dramatic presentation of the old skeletons and bodies which had been discovered.

Part of the enormous quantity of finds

Deel van de enorme hoeveelheid vondstenThe archaeologists did not only find houses and relics, but things like a dining table laid with eggs and fish; pieces of bone in jars which had been used to store meat. Shops still contained dried onions, beans, olives and figs. Ordinary houses contained jewellery, cosmetics, perfume, bronze mirrors, ivory combs and good luck charms in the rooms in which they had last been used. The same happened in Herculaneum, where the sudden events caused everyone to leave their things behind. In one of the houses a table was found with a meal consisting of bread, salad, cake and fruit.

Fiorelli knew that in a certain part of the city people had been unable to escape and he made some spectacular finds there. The layer of ash had not only covered the houses but also the people fleeing in terror. The ash seeped through their hair and between the folds of their clothes, and when the ash hardened after a shower of rain cavities were left behind. This was discovered by chance when excavation workers, cutting through the ash, suddenly came across a hollow area. The bodies which had lain in the ash had long since disappeared, but Fiorelli poured liquid plaster into the hollows. When the plaster hardened, the surrounding coat of ash was removed and what was left was the shape of a real person.

As more and more victims were found in this way, interest grew in the human side of the story of Pompeii. After all these years the plaster casts clearly showed the frightened expressions on the faces. Such as a woman clutching her baby while two girls clung to her skirt, a young man and woman who had fallen next to each other while trying to escape, and outside the northern wall a man who died while dragging his goat.

Everywhere were instances of people who had died together. In the house of a certain Quintus Poppaeus 10 slaves died on their way to the second floor, their leader holding a bronze lantern. In the house of Publius Paquius Proculus 10 children died when the roof above them collapsed under the weight of the falling pumice stone. In a building where wine was traded 34 people were sheltering with a supply of bread and fruit until the eruption ended. In a villa outside the city 18 adults and 2 children died in a cellar. The master of the house dies outside with the silver key in his hand. He was on the way to the fields, together with a steward who was carrying money and other valuables.

Many of the people trying to escape had some possessions with them. The mistress of a large house suffocated in the open air, together with three servant girls, and gold and jewels were found all over their bodies. Near the gladiators’ barracks, a slave died next to a horse on which he had loaded clothes and other useful items.

The theatre in Pompeii
Inside the theatre

Further research in Pompeii

Fiorelli was of course one of the most important initiators of the excavations at Pompeii. Without him the city would probably have been robbed of all its valuables, and the atmosphere which still hangs in the houses, shops and streets would have been lost. Fiorelli was followed by a number of others but the most important was the German archaeologist Augustus Mau.

Mau worked as an archaeologist in Pompeii during the last quarter of the 19th century and carried out research into building materials and ornamental details on the buildings to find out more about architectural styles.

His study of the use of grey tufa, a volcanic stone, showed that this type of stone was chiefly used in the second century BC. With the help of Mau’s research work, other researchers were able to compile a dating system which helped to explain the growth of Pompeii as a city. Mau also drew maps and extended Fiorelli’s street plan.

One of the streets in Pompeii

A picture of Pompeii from archaeological research

Pompeii had long been a prosperous city. Freight was delivered throughout the year by boats on the River de Sarno, from where goods were transported further via Pompeii. But Pompeii’s main activity was agriculture. Large flocks of sheep grazed on the fields outside the city and supplied the flourishing wool trade. Rows of vines on the slopes of Vesuvius provided the sweet wine for which the region was famous. Olives grew on the higher slopes of the volcano. Some of these were sold for eating but the majority of the crop was processed for olive oil. Roman architecture could be seen everywhere. Over the fields and meadows stretched the arches of a stone aqueduct which began some 40 kilometres away in the mountains and split into two parts – one for Pompeii and one for Neapolis. This aqueduct supplied most of the city with the water which was needed for the fountains and the hot baths which were an essential part of Roman social life. The water supply was supplemented by wells and the city also had at least 12 water towers spread over the whole city which acted as a reservoir. Because the water ran down the long slope from the mountains, the pressure was sufficient to pump the water up through lead pipes to the top of the 6 metre high towers. From that height, the water was forced down through smaller pipes until it spouted out of the fountains.

A street in Pompeii

Mau was very impressed by these water channels and thought that there must have been sufficient household water to supply the whole city. In fact, most people – including the rich – depended on the fountains. Furthermore rainwater was drawn from the roofs of public buildings and held in cisterns beneath the buildings. Sometimes ordinary houses collected rainwater in large basins.

Most of the visitors to Pompeii came from Neapolis or Rome, so Pompeii paid great attention to the appearance of that side of the city. There were two monumental gateways, the Herculaneum Gate and the Vesuvius Gate, and the city wall on that side was 9 metres high and topped with 3 square towers. The rest of the city is watched over by a further ten towers.

The city wall was built of earth and pumice stone, mixed with rough blocks of limestone and volcanic stones. This wall was probably built in the 3rd century BC and had once enclosed the 65 hectare city.

The city had 6 other gateways, including the narrow Stabiae Gate to the south, the oldest entrance to the city, which once ran along the city moat. The barrel-shaped Maria Gate lay on the de Sarno and could be reached via a steep path and stairway. The gates were shut every evening and opened again in the morning. In later times this became a custom but earlier the gates had really been necessary as they offered protection against attack. Traces of the damage caused during the Siege of Pompeii in 89 BC can still be seen, certainly at the Vesuvius Gate. As Pompei became ever more popular with other Romans, parts of the wall were removed to allow the city to be extended.

In studying the city, archaeologists have concentrated mainly on the buildings and monuments inside the walls. In uncovering the city it was not difficult to identify what each building was, because an extensive inscription outside each building often carried the name, function, date of construction, and name of the person for whom it was built. There was often a new inscription whenever a building was renovated. As for example the inscription placed when a wall was built to close off the gallery next to the Temple of Apollo, by which the neighbouring houses lost their view: “3000 sesterces was the cost of the permission granted to the city authorities to remove the right to light and to build up to the height of the roof tiles”.

A visit to Pompeii is a unique experience and is highly recommended. It is one of the best preserved cities of the ancient world.


Indirizzo: Via Colle San Bartolomeo, 10 – Pompei

Text and photos Harrie Wolters

Translation Alun Harvey


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