Excavation of Pompeii Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The excavation of the intact ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which had been buried under layers of volcanic ash for more than sixteen centuries, caused a sensation among intellectuals and amateurs alike and brought about a revival of interest in the values and styles of the Roman world.

Summary of Event

For millennia, the rich volcanic Volcanoes soil of Mount Vesuvius Mount Vesuvius, Italy produced abundant crops for the ancient peoples living in the area of the Bay of Naples. In an ironic twist of fate, that same Mount Vesuvius, which had long been inactive, reawakened on the morning of August 24, 79 c.e., burying the region and its inhabitants under thick layers of volcanic ash and lava. The thriving towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae were suddenly and completely engulfed in the volcano’s eruption. [kw]Excavation of Pompeii (1748) [kw]Pompeii, Excavation of (1748) Pompeii, Italy Archaeology;Italy [g]Italy;1748: Excavation of Pompeii[1230] [c]Anthropology;1748: Excavation of Pompeii[1230] [c]Architecture;1748: Excavation of Pompeii[1230] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1748: Excavation of Pompeii[1230] [c]Natural disasters;1748: Excavation of Pompeii[1230] Elbeuf, prince d’ Charles III (1716-1788) Alcubierre, Roque Joachim de Weber, Carl Jacob Winckelmann, Johann Joachim

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius changed the courses of rivers and altered entire coastlines, filling in areas of the bay with volcanic rock and ash. When the upheaval finally ceased, residents of Pompeii who returned in hopes of gathering their belongings had difficulty locating their city: Not only was it buried deep under meters of volcanic ash, but it was also no longer on the coast. After a short period of vain attempts to rescue what they could, the inhabitants of the former city moved away, and Pompeii was almost entirely forgotten. The area above the former city came to be known as Civitas, Civitas, Italy or the City, even though no city was ever again built on the site. Ancient Herculaneum, which now rested below meters of hardened mud, was later built over with a new city, Resina-Ercolano. Resina-Ercolano, Italy[Resina Ercolano]

It was not until the late sixteenth century that either ancient city came to light again. Even then, the importance of the discovery went unrecognized: In the 1590’s, several ancient remains were exposed during construction projects, but the artifacts were ignored. Nearly a century later, in 1689, engineers found a stone inscribed “Decurio Pompeiis.” Thinking it was a reference to Pompey the Great, a statesman from the era of Republican Rome, the engineers ignored it as well.

Then, in 1709, while digging a well in Resina-Ercolano, workers brought up pieces of marble statuary. The prince d’Elbeuf, a member of the Austrian court that occupied Italy at the time, ordered the excavations to be extended, and he used the recovered treasures to decorate his nearby villa. By 1738, the excavations at Herculaneum drew the attention of Charles IV, the Austrian Bourbon king of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily), who appointed Roque Joachim de Alcubierre director of excavations. Alcubierre was charged with tunneling through the ancient city to find additional treasures. The resulting destruction was enormous. No records were kept of where items were found. Tunnels were drilled and then refilled as soon as all valuable items were removed in order to prevent houses from collapsing in the city above. All items of value that Alcubierre discovered were taken to the king’s palace in Naples (now the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli). Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Italy

By 1748, Herculaneum appeared to have given up most of its valuable artworks, and the king ordered excavation to begin at Civitas, which, at that time, was thought to be the site of ancient Stabiae. Herculaneum had been buried under meters of rock-hard volcanic material that required arduous tunneling, but at Civitas, Pompeii was buried under layers of much lighter volcanic ash. For Alcubierre, this meant that work could go even more quickly.

Fortunately, the Swiss architect and engineer Carl Jacob Weber joined the team of excavators in 1750. Weber introduced new archaeological methodologies, including recording the locations of finds, saving “insignificant” objects Material culture and archaeology such as ordinary household items, and publishing finds for review by the academic community. Weber’s time-consuming and laborious techniques infuriated the impatient Alcubierre, and for the remainder of their time together, Alcubierre and Weber quarreled over how to run the excavations.

In 1762, when the famed art historian Johann Joachim Wincklemann visited the site, he was so appalled at Alcubierre’s ramrod approach to excavation that Wincklemann wrote an open letter to all European scholars attacking Alcubierre and his mismanagement of the ancient sites. Wincklemann’s letter served to awaken international interest in the excavations.

In 1763, excavators found an inscription verifying that Civitas was, in fact, the ancient city of Pompeii. For the first time, an entire ancient Roman city Ruins;Pompeii had been found intact. Unlike the remains of other ancient cities, such as the Rome itself, which had been exposed to the elements for centuries, Pompeii was completely preserved under layers of ash that protected it from the ravages of time. Pompeii retained the vivid, bright colors of its wall paintings and the minute details of daily life, Archaeology;Pompeii such as foodstuffs and clothing. Even the exact locations and positions of the citizens who succumbed to the toxic fumes and extreme heat of the volcanic eruption could be recovered by filling the voids where the bodies had decomposed with plaster of Paris. Through this process, it was estimated that two thousand citizens of Pompeii perished during the eruption of Vesuvius.

The excavations at Pompeii revealed a town of about twenty thousand inhabitants as it appeared on that fateful day in August of 79 c.e. Its straight streets were lined with raised sidewalks, along which were located shops, bakeries, small restaurants, taverns, bathhouses, public latrines, laundries, apartments, and houses. At the center of town was a forum, along with temples and a large food market. The town had a covered theater and an open-air amphitheater with seating for twenty thousand people. On the outskirts of town were the lavish villas of Roman aristocrats who preferred to escape the heat and crowds of the city of Rome for the fresh air of Pompeii’s seaside location. Protected for centuries by volcanic ash, the excavations revealed intact wall paintings, furniture, and mosaics, as well as perfectly preserved bronze and marble statuary.

Pompeii, Italy, was buried under tons of volcanic ash and debris after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 c.e.. Archaeologists began excavating the mostly intact ancient Roman city’s ruins in 1748, sparking renewed interest in Roman art and culture.

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As news about the finds at Pompeii and Herculaneum traveled across Europe, interested scholars and tourists flocked to Pompeii on their Grand Tours Grand Tours of Europe to experience firsthand the feeling of walking through an ancient Roman city. Block by block, the excavations continued across Pompeii, until it was realized that the exposed excavated areas were succumbing to the elements and to poorly administered tourism and even looting. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that any truly scientific or systematic excavations were carried out at the sites. The excavations then continued with greater supervision, and archeological methods continuously improved. Today, one-third of the city of Pompeii and two-thirds of the city of Herculaneum remain unexcavated, reserved for future generations and more advanced archaeological methods.


The excavation of Pompeii opened the ancient Roman world to greater scrutiny than ever before. This glimpse into another world fired the imaginations of many Europeans and American colonists who were chaffing under the excesses and despotism of despised monarchies. Scholars and statesmen began looking to the ancient world for solutions to their own contemporary problems, finding in ancient Rome an ideal of republican values, patriotism, and reason. The desire to overthrow tyrannical monarchies and to reestablish Roman republican forms of government served as a stimulus for the revolutions in both America (1776) and France (1789).

The excavations at Pompeii also had great cultural influences in both Europe and America. The discoveries of entire ancient buildings, complete with rooms, furniture, and artifacts from everyday life, helped to initiate the neoclassical Neoclassicism;architecture Architecture;neoclassicism Art;neoclassicism movement in art Neoclassicism;art and architecture and inspired the Empire style in dress and furniture. The revival of classical aesthetics Aesthetics;classical served as a statement of protest against the extravagances of the ornately decorative Baroque and rococo Rococo styles popular with the monarchs of Europe. Neoclassical artists, such as Jacques-Louis David, painted moralizing works depicting noble Romans making personal sacrifices for the good of the state. Architects, such as Robert Adam Adam, Robert and James Adam, Adam, James designed rooms inspired by Roman originals, complete with historically accurate bright colors, such as “Pompeii red.” The writer Madame de Staël Staël, Madame de wrote the novel Corrine: Ou, L’Italie (1807; Corrine: Or, Italy, Corrine (de Staël) 1807) based on Pompeii and the composer Giovanni Pacini wrote the opera L’Ultimo giorno di Pompei Ultimo giorno di Pompei, L’ (Pacini) (pr. 1825, pb. c. 1826; the last days of Pompeii), complete with an erupting Mount Vesuvius at the ending.

The discovery of Pompeii also brought to the public’s attention the importance of accurately recording and preserving Preservation;cultural Architectural preservation Cultural preservation evidence of the past. The excavations were initiated in a random treasure hunt to fill the palaces of Europe with precious artworks, but through time they evolved into a precise scientific endeavor to recapture and preserve not only the artworks but also the details of the everyday lives of those who lived long ago.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Amery, Colin, and Brian Curran, Jr. The Lost World of Pompeii. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002. Discusses Pompeii’s history, destruction, rediscovery, and preservation today, including photographs of the site.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cassanelli, Roberto, et al. Houses and Monuments of Pompeii: The Works of Fausto and Felice Niccolini. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002. Collection of essays relating to the excavations of Pompeii and their influence on Western culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guzzo, Pier Giovanni, et al. Pompeii. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 2000. Comprehensive guide that traces the history of Pompeii, describes the archaeological site, and includes photographs of Pompeii’s buildings, paintings, and artifacts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parslow, Christopher Charles. Rediscovering Antiquity: Karl Weber and the Excavation of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabiae. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Excellent recounting of Weber’s discoveries and his contributions to the then-fledgling field of archaeology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Radice, Betty, trans. The Letters of the Younger Pliny. New York: Penguin Classics, 1976. An eyewitness account of the 79 c.e. eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

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