A.E. COOLEY, Pompeii. London: Duckworth, 2003. Pp.160. ISBN 0-7156-3161-6. STG £45 (Pb).
Review by Noreen Humble
This book belongs to the Duckworth Archaeological Histories series which looks at particular sites or buildings from their construction to the present day and sets each subject in the broader historical and political context, including how it is perceived in popular imagination. No explanation is necessary for why Pompeii is a suitable subject for such a series. Though Pompeii never really disappears from the public imagination, the past few years seem to have brought another mini-revival of interest, for example, Robert Harris? novel Pompeii, Caroline Lawrence?s best-selling children?s mysteries (The Pirates of Pompeii, The Secrets of Vesuvius), and the latest filmic reconstruction ?Pompeii the Last Day? which combines the new scientific advances in vulcanology with creative re-imaginings of the lives behind the silent corpses.
Cooley (henceforth C.) makes her purpose clear from the outset. She notes in the introduction that the book ?is not a guidebook ? [but] a history of responses to the ruins? and ?does not claim to provide a comprehensive history of the excavations? (p. 11). Given that there are only 125 pages of text, clearly the responses are selective and C. herself is aware that this might disappoint some readers (p. 13).
There are seven chapters: the first two (?Prologue to the Nightmare? and ?The Nightmare Revealed?) deal with seismology and vulcanology respectively and how advances over the past 20 years or so in these areas have changed how we read the archaeological evidence. For example, traditional assumptions such as A. Maiuri?s that an earthquake in AD62 caused such major disruption to life in Pompeii that the town was in a state of crisis, the Forum abandoned, and so on, are overturned. Comparative seismology suggests that it is likely Pompeii was subject to continual tremors from AD62-79 making repairs difficult to keep up with but not disrupting the economy particularly. In vulcanology the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens provides much comparative evidence for reassessing what happened at Pompeii both during and after the eruption. A new understanding of pyroclastic flows allows us to reinterpret the archaeological record in a more sophisticated way. Thus it is possible by reading the ash layers to see that bodies in different parts of the town died in different stages and not necessarily where they have been found.
Chapter 3, ?A Broken Sleep?, deals with Pompeii from 79-1748. As C. notes ?the idea that the town was sealed up in a time capsule by the eruption has been influential upon the popular imagination? (p. 53), but there is plenty of tantalising evidence that this just was not the case. For example, 6th to 16th century pottery has been found in the Suburban Baths; there is a 5th century necropolis nearby; and a 16th century aqueduct cuts through the very heart of the town. Further comparison with the Mount St Helens? region shows that ecological regeneration would likely have begun almost immediately after the devastation so that the region would have shortly thereafter been able to support life.
Chapter 4, ?The Reawakening?, looks at the start of official excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum under the Bourbon King Charles in the 18th century. C. well brings out how the excavations need to be understood in the light of Charles? political aim ?to transform Naples into a cultural showcase? (p.68). The finding of treasures for his galleries was the prime aim and much criticism was directed against the randomness of the digging and excavation techniques. The descriptions of the cynical reburying of treasures to re-excavate them for important visitors, and of the ban on drawing sketches, nicely captures the mood of the time.
Chapter 5, ?The Politics of Archaeology?, moves us a century on and focuses on the directorship of Giuseppe Fiorelli (1860-1875) under whose charge a more scientific approach to excavation evolved, not just at Pompeii but across Italy. C. continues to emphasise how what was going on at Pompeii was closely linked to and influenced by contemporary politics (so, e.g., we learn of Fiorelli?s imprisonment, and Alexander Dumas? brief term as Director, appointed by Garibaldi).
Chapter 6, ?Probing Beneath the Surface?, brings us into the 20th century and here C. has chosen to focus on the practice of plaster casts of plant roots and what they reveal about gardens in Pompeii. The discussion centres on Wilhelmina Jashemski?s work in the 1960s and 1970s which changed the way we viewed cultivation within the city walls. Many gardens seem to be both ornamental and functional, and a large vineyard was found in an area previously thought to be a cattle market. This research has led to new questions being posed about the use of space for cultivation within the town.
Chapter 7, ?Probing Ever Deeper?, reminds us of the wealth of information below the surface (and even still above) concerning earlier habitation in Pompeii. The first attempts in this direction in the 1930s and 1940s by Maiuri seem simplistic now not least in the light of more sophisticated stratigraphical knowledge. As C. points out, however, our era is only another chapter in the history of excavations at Pompeii and our current views are likely to be superseded in the next generations.
The book is lucidly written. The notes are scholarly and kept to the back so that the text is wholly accessible to the non-specialist as well as to academics. A glossary, timeline, and guide to key figures in the history of Pompeii are useful. Further reading is helpfully linked to the topics in the chapters to enable readers to follow up whatever era they chose. The goal expressed in the introduction ?to interest some of the thousands of visitors to the site, who wish to gain some insight into how their own experiences of visiting Pompeii belong to a continuum that dates back to the mid-eighteenth century? (p. 11) will surely be achieved. Certainly this reader is ready for another visit with an eye to considering Pompeii from an entirely different perspective than simply for what it tells us about the Romans. It will be warmly recommended to my students as much for the way it reveals how intertwined the ancient world has been and still is with the history and politics of Europe as for how it deepens our understanding of Pompeii itself.