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Voices from the Ashes Volume 56 Number 4, July/August 2003
by Jarrett A. Lobell

A former excavator returns to Pompeii as a visitor, and finds that the people she's studied for years still speak to her.

The peristyle of the House of Menander after restoration. (Courtesy Soprintendeza Archeologica di Pompeii)

Pompeii was my office and the House of the Vestals felt like my home from 1995 to 2001, when I was codirector of the Anglo-American Project in Pompeii. When I returned to the ancient city this past spring, it was as a visitor, not an archaeologist. Some things have changed for the better since I started working here. More houses are open and more care is being taken to conserve and restore what has been excavated, something I am relieved to see after witnessing one of the world's greatest archaeological sites slowly disintegrating before my eyes year after year. These changes have been brought about by the steady management of Pompeii's superintendent, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, by the decreasing influence of organized crime in the area, by the influx (however insufficient) of money brought about the declaration of Pompeii as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, and by a unique experiment in which the Italian government allows Pompeii to keep the money from its ticket sales for site conservation.

One of the special places now open to the public is the House of Menander. When I visited it several years ago, restoration work was ongoing, and scaffolding and dust covered many of the walls and floors, so I was excited to see what had been accomplished since then. Rotting wooden beams have been replaced with new ones stained a rich dark brown, mosaic floors scrubbed to a bright white and glossy black, and wall paintings cleaned and restored to better show their deep red, yellow, and blue hues. I almost expected the owner to greet me with a cup of wine (perhaps in one of the stunning silver cups for which the house is so famous) and invite me to come out of the sun and relax in the shade of his newly planted peristyle garden.

My next stop was the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, the opulent residence of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. This was one of the grandest houses of the Roman world, famed for the richness of its decoration as well as for its library of ancient scholarly works written on the papyrus scrolls that give the villa its name. Emergency restoration begun last year has now allowed the villa to open its doors to the public for the first time in its 2,000-year history. Like the House of Menander, the villa appeared well-cleaned and restored.

The last stop in my new role as visitor was the sixteenth-century palazzo that houses the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. I've been here many times before, but this time it was to see the new "Stories from an Eruption--Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis," the museum's first major exhibition to focus on the people whose lives were extinguished by Vesuvius.

Jarrett A. Lobell is photo editor and production manager of ARCHAEOLOGY. The Naples exhibition runs through August 31. The author would like to thank everyone at the Soprintendeza Archeologica di Pompeii for their assistance. See also ARCHAEOLOGY's InteractiveDig Pompeii.

* See also "Pompeii's Block of Time."

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America