BBC2’s Superb Programme “The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum”.

herculaneum-panoramaSur­pris­ing­ly, the first time that any­one ever prac­ticed archae­ol­o­gy was in 1738. It was then, on Octo­ber 22nd to be pre­cise, that Rocque Alcu­bierre sat down to care­ful­ly write down a descrip­tion of all the things they were dig­ging up at the recent­ly dis­cov­ered Roman town of Her­cu­la­neum, just out­side of Naples.

Soon after that, a sec­ond town cap­tured in time was unearthed at near­by Pom­peii. And the sci­ence of archae­ol­o­gy was born, as Rocque and his fel­low work­ers began to ask them­selves the sorts of ques­tions that archae­ol­o­gy poses.

Should they put what they found back where they found it? Or should they take it away to be stored some­where else, where it could be looked after more safe­ly? And if so, where?

cyclades-mapThe word archae­ol­o­gy had first been coined by the Greek his­to­ri­an Thucy­dides in the 5th cen­tu­ry B.C., when he described what had acci­den­tal­ly been dug up on the island of Delos.

Delos had always been sacred to the Greeks. The group of island that it is part of, the Cyclades, gets its name from the fact that it is around Delos that the larg­er islands of Nax­os, Paros and Mykonos are cir­cled.

So the Greeks had always assumed that they’d always lived there. But when they dug up arte­facts that had clear­ly come from near­by Turkey, Thucy­dides cor­rect­ly argued that there must have been oth­ers who had lived there before the Greeks.

But it was only after Her­cu­la­neum and Pom­peii were dis­cov­ered some two thou­sand years lat­er that we began to prac­tice, sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly, archae­ol­o­gy itself. They’d been caked in vol­canic ash after Mount Vesu­vius had erupt­ed in 79 A.D. And they’ve giv­en us an extra­or­di­nary win­dow into life in first cen­tu­ry Ancient Rome.

Our guide for this pro­gramme was Andrew Wal­lace-Hadrill, Direc­tor of the Her­cu­la­neum Con­ser­va­tion Project in Rome. And what he gave us over the course of the hour were a series of fas­ci­nat­ing insights that were as calm­ly infor­ma­tive as they were qui­et­ly moving.

He walked us through the dif­fer­ences between Her­cu­la­neum and the more famous Pom­peii, explain­ing the dif­fer­ent dis­cov­er­ies that we’ve been able to make there, and how it was that they were revealed.

CIMG2004-1Painstak­ing analy­sis of human waste, bones and skele­tons, togeth­er with an array of arte­facts has pro­duced an arrest­ing set of images frozen in time. Women and chil­dren hud­dling in shel­ter, as the men­folk stood des­per­ate­ly out in the open on the beach. A young boy cling­ing on to his pet dog. A two-year-old girl with her sil­ver ear­rings, being clung to by her mother.

Wal­lace-Hadrill was the per­fect guide on a fas­ci­nat­ing tour. And what a pleas­ant sur­prise to see a pro­gramme on Rome where the focus of atten­tion was on the Clas­si­cal world and not on the pre­sen­ter. Eru­di­tion and a cer­tain sense of mod­esty are not, it seems, a thing of the past.

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