A reader recently pointed me towards “Herculaneum Uncovered,” an interview with Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Professor of Classics at Cambridge and Director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project. The interview appears in the latest issue of Ideas Roadshow, a multimedia magazine dedicated to the in-depth and accessible exploration of topics ranging from autism and archaeology, to democracy and dark matter. I watched the hour-long conversation in its entirety with great interest and, admittedly, heavy expectations.
|Archaeologists excavate and conserve the ancient site of Herculaneum
(Photo credit: Herculaneum Conservation Project website)
The host, Howard Burton, plays the role of a generally ill-informed appreciator of history and archaeology. From the outset, Burton offers up a series of misconceptions widely believed as accurate regarding the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, and the subsequent centuries-long study of the archaeological sites at Pompeii and Herculaneum. I found this to be a brilliant approach to gleaning an authoritative interpretation from his esteemed guest. Burton, for example, wonders if Pompeii was a more sexually obscene ancient city than Herculaneum due to a prevalence of sexual imagery and brothels at the site. An expert in classical archaeology, Wallace-Hadrill remarks coyly that they have not uncovered any evidence because it may have simply yet to be excavated. “Never assume because it isn’t there that it wasn’t there,” he says. In any Introduction to Archaeology course, you’ll learn this to be a typical example of absence of evidence versus evidence of absence. Archaeologists can not readily explain that which they have not found; likewise, they can not find that which they don’t know exists. The solution, therefore, is to keep digging, keep postulating, in hopes of one day finding all of the puzzle pieces to fit a complete picture.
The conversation turns to the issue of excavation vs. preservation. To this, Wallace-Hadrill assumes the role of proud archaeologist and storyteller of an ancient historical drama. While openly admitting that archaeological finds are best preserved underground (“Burial produces stability,” he posits), Wallace-Hadrill dignifies his research — and the field of archaeology, in general — with the assumption that excavation is what makes something accessible and thus restorable. “The process of excavation,” he offers, “is the process of conservation and restoration. You must do something with it.” His position, I think, is a bold but necessary assumption of the merits of archaeological research. In Italy and other artifact-rich states, where so many sites are in danger of irreparable decay, archaeology is something of a two-headed beast. On the one hand, major discoveries about the past are not possible without throwing around some dirt. (So goes, we would never know there was a dinosaur in our backyard if Dad wasn’t trying to dig us a pool.) On the other, archaeological projects reveal a certain unawareness, ineptitude, and awful hypocrisy concerning public projects. Wallace-Hadrill laments that the system of winning contracts in Italy rewards “qualified” firms with the lowest bid. He cites the devastating 2009 L’Aquila earthquake: the elementary school where 26 children perished was constructed with sea sand, a much weaker material than builder’s sand. These improprieties, he says, occur everywhere, not just Italy. This is what he means by, “Excavation comes with a very considerable modern intervention.”
On the whole, “Herculaneum Uncovered” is a very informative, lay-accessible introduction to one archaeologist’s experience in the field. There are insights into a range of issues affecting archaeological research, conservation ethics, and society’s view of the past. Without being overly political in scope, the conversation reminds us why and how the work of individuals like Wallace-Hadrill is important, both now and in the future.