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Pompeii's Block of Time Volume 56 Number 4, July/August 2003
by Rick Jones

Uncovering four centuries of Roman life in a single city neighborhood

The north end of the block, as seen from the city wall. In the foreground is the courtyard of an inn, behind it the atrium of the House of the Vestals. (Courtesy Jarrett A. Lobell)

In 1994, I set up the Anglo-American Project in Pompeii to record and excavate the history of an entire city block in Pompeii. This block presented both special challenges and opportunities. Walls of homes and shops had been left exposed to the elements by excavators in the eighteenth century, but had been little studied since. Erosion had eaten into wall decorations and floors, but we could turn that to our advantage by excavating down into the city's earliest strata in areas where no floors had survived. The bare masonry of the walls could also reveal much about the block's structural history.

Most of what visitors to Pompeii see today reflects only one moment in the city's history, how it looked in A.D. 79 when it was buried by volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. We are now learning about the history of this block, from its beginnings more than four hundred years earlier. We can show how it was first occupied in the fourth century B.C., filled in with modest houses and workshops in the second century B.C., bombarded by a Roman army a century later, then came to be dominated by a single luxurious residence surrounded by bars and shops. Many of the questions we are asking are new ones, about the origins of the city: when its streets were laid out, how the densely packed townscape of A.D. 79 came into being, the relationships between rich and poor, and how the masses earned a living.

* See also "Voices from the Ashes."

Rick Jones is reader in archaeology at the University of Bradford and director of the Anglo-American Project in Pompeii. For updates on the excavation, visit ARCHAEOLOGY's InteractiveDig Pompeii.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America