Popular Science


URBAN RUINS LINE A QUIET thoroughfare in the northern reaches of Pompeii. Tall grass and sunflowers push through formerly tiled atrium floors, and murals, once brightly painted with scenes from Roman mythology, have faded to a few streaks of red on gray-and-brown bricks.

Time and exposure have worn them down, but archaeology itself has been somewhat cruel to these relics. Eager treasure hunters of the 18th and 19th centuries often dug into the earth without much concern for what they destroyed as long as they found statues, gold, or other booty. Upper stories of buildings that hadn’t been demolished by Mount Vesuvius’ hail of volcanic debris in 79 A.D. were wrecked by picks and shovels. Folks searching for loot in the wealthier southern neighborhoods of this city piled loose dirt on top of the still-buried northern blocks, creating an unstable, muddy mound of soil, bricks, pottery fragments, and other discarded artifacts.

Farther along the strip, there’s an area where those centuries-gone hunters heaped their debris. In 2010, portions of a nearby ancient athletic training facility—the “House of the Gladiators”—collapsed due to neglect, triggering the Pompeii Archaeological Park to conduct both an excavation and a rescue operation. Surrounded by scaffolding and dotted with wheelbarrows and hard hats alongside deep holes in the ground, the place looks more like a construction site than a dig. Mounds of old detritus have started to erode rapidly, threatening to make the streets and homes still below ground even more inaccessible. The effort will reveal new

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