Monday, 8 April 2013

Small but perfectly formed: the Herculaneum Conservation Project

Following last week’s BBC documentary ‘The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum’ and the successful exhibition at The British Museum, ‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’, I had a root around in the Maney Publishing archives for an expert perspective on Pompeii’s less famous but equally fascinating neighbour.
Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites published a special issue in 2006 on the Herculaneum Conservation Project, set up by David W. Packard. The aim of the project was to assist the Italian government in the preservation of this small village which was encompassed in volcanic material by the same eruption of Vesuvius that blanketed Pompeii in ash and pumice pebbles in AD 79.The editors explain the importance of both preserving the site for archaeological record and also of the project as an example of what can be achieved by the cooperation of privately funded institutions and government. This collaboration seems to have only strengthened over the years with the spotlight now deservedly shining on this perfect snapshot of life two thousand years ago.

The following is an excerpt from the editorial of the special issue:

“The Herculaneum Conservation Project – the subject of all the papers in this issue – is notable for a number of reasons. The site of Herculaneum, together with its larger neighbour Pompeii which has tended to overshadow it in tourist itineraries and in the popular imagination, is extraordinary for the degree of preservation of its Roman townscape. Few sites are able to evoke the sensation of exploring the streets of 2000 years ago in the way that Herculaneum does. Remarkable sites deserve remarkable projects of investigation and preservation, and this site has been no exception. Herculaneum was first explored in the 18th century, mainly by means of tunnelling horizontally through the volcanic ash deposits that had buried the site to a depth of many metres. This was itself a technical feat at that time even if discouraged nowadays as an excavation technique. Then, in the 20th century, the work of Amedeo Maiuri has become a classic example of a long-term excavation campaign in which the restoration of well-preserved excavated buildings proceeded in tandem with their exposure. There are striking parallels with Arthur Evans’ work at Knossos in the 1920s and 1930s that deserve further study. In both cases, restoration was justified on the grounds that the buildings, though well preserved, would have collapsed once exhumed from their surrounding deposit. Moreover, on both sites similar ‘cutaway’ techniques were employed to show to visitors the upper storeys of buildings while making it evident that they were partially restored.

And now, equally remarkable, is the current initiative of the Packard Humanities Institute in undertaking the long-term campaign of site preservation that is reported in this volume. The initiative was stimulated by the very poor condition of a site that had been, and deserved to continue to be, a principal visitor attraction and locus for archaeological research. The public–private partnership that sustains the project brings together the regional public body that is responsible for Pompeii and its neighbouring sites and the private Packard Humanities Institute based in the USA. It is the first of its kind in Italy, having been made possible thanks to recent changes in Italian heritage legislation. It deserves to be a model for all situations in which slow-moving bureaucracies and management systems ill-adapted to the 21st century tend to create obstacles instead of embracing the flexibility and innovation that is needed in site management. The papers in this issue describe the success of a private foundation in introducing flexibility into a rigid state system while keeping in mind the long-term aim of facilitating the sustainable management of the site by those authorities that remain officially responsible for it.”
>> Download the entire special issue for free until Tuesday 16th April 2013

>> ‘The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum’ on the BBC

>> ‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ at The British Museum

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