Pompeii Archaeologists 'Committing Vandalism to Volcanology' by Destroying History of Vesuvius Eruption, Scientists Claim

Archaeologists at Pompeii have been accused of committing "vandalism to volcanology" by sacrificing deposits left by Mount Vesuvius during excavations, a group of scientists has said.

In a letter published in the journal Nature, Roberto Scandone, Professor of Volcanology at the University of Rome, and colleagues, say the archaeological and volcanic history left behind by the eruption in 79 AD offers "an insight into how societies live and die in the shadow of a volcano." By excavating the site, archaeologists are destroying the geological deposits, meaning any information about the eruption stored within is lost, they argue.

Archaeologists have been working at the site since the 1700s, about a century after it was rediscovered. Since then, they have been able to reconstruct the ancient city in unprecedented detail, providing a view into the lives of the people who were there when the volcano erupted—burying them and the city in ash.

But also locked away in the ash are clues about how the volcano erupted. This is important as Vesuvius is considered one of the world's most dangerous. It is located in the Bay of Naples, with over three million people living in the vicinity, 600,000 of which live in the "red zone." According to the Smithsonian's Global Volcanism Program, it has erupted between 40 and 50 times in the last 2,000 years, with the last one taking place in 1944.

Christopher Kilburn, a volcanologist with the U.K's University College London and a co-author of the Nature letter, told Newsweek that he is not worried about Vesuvius erupting any time soon—the volcano appears to have been in a state of rest since its last eruption. "Indeed, the repose interval of 75 years is the longest since its 1631 eruption, which reawakened the volcano after some 500 years of quiet," he said.

However, Kilburn also said authorities should be prepared for another big eruption, "and this means we need as much information as possible from the AD 79 deposits in Pompeii."

pompeii victims
Plaster casts of victims, at Garden of the Fugitives in Pompeii. Martin Godwin/Getty Images

He continued: "Unfortunately, most of the deposits from 79 AD eruption are covered by urban sprawl and the products of younger eruptions. Archaeological sites, such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, are thus among the rare locations where we can dig through the entire sequence of the 79 AD deposits. On top of that, we can link the volcanic processes directly to their impact on a town—which is vital for understanding what might happen in the future."

Alarming sacrifice of deposits

In the 1980s, scientists carried out studies of the deposits in the sections revealed by new excavations and this changed our understanding of the threat posed by the volcano, including how the people of Pompeii were killed by pyroclastic flows—clouds of volcanic gas and magma. Before this, it was thought they were killed by a rain of pumice. Understanding this meant strategies for preparing for future eruptions changed.

In the Nature article, Scandone and colleagues say that "volcanic deposits are being sacrificed during archaeological excavations" and that this is "alarming."

Seven years ago, the Great Pompeii Project was launched to expand excavations at the site. A press release sent to Newsweek by the team behind the Nature letter says the removal of volcanic deposits at the site is "disastrous for volcano science." They say an appeal to preserve some of the deposits in place has been met with "indifference" by directors of the archaeological site and Italy's Ministry for Culture.

"They seem not to realise that the enthusiasm for archaeology is committing an act of vandalism to volcanology" Scandone said in the statement. "Leaving some of the deposits in place is valuable not only for scientists, but also for visitors, who will be able to see at first hand how the volcano destroyed the town."

In an email to Newsweek, he added: "The archaeologists do not see a problem at all. Tension [between volcanologists and archaeologists] is avoided because archaeologists simply ignore the question and believe that the site is their property. Two volcanologists have been permitted to see some of the new sections cut through the deposits, but they have no say in whether the sections can be preserved. Until now, this means that no deposits have been preserved in place."

He said once the material has been removed, it cannot be used to study the dynamics of the eruption. "We have suggested that the excavations could leave behind representative sections of the deposits, but this has been ignored," he said.

vesuvius erupting
The 1944 eruption of Vesuvius, Italy. Keystone/Getty Images

Massimo Osanna, General Director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, denies these claims. In a statement emailed to Newsweek, he said volcanological research at Pompeii has been the subject of attention for a long time—and an agreement allowing scientists to study the stratigraphy is in place. Researchers from the Department of Earth, Environment and Resources (DiSTAR) of the University of Naples Federico II have been studying the 79 AD eruption as part of a "long and fruitful collaboration" between archaeologists and volcanologists.

This includes, he said, studying the damage to the victims of Pompeii based on the different eruptive phases. "All the excavation activities...were supervised by the volcanologists [from the] University of Naples Federico II, who were able to record the stratigraphy, take samples and construct a damage mapping."

Osanna says data collected during excavations has helped to reconstruct the eruption and archaeological finds were only removed once they had been fully assessed and a "clear cause-effect relationship between the damage found and specific eruptive phases" had been established.

For Kilburn, however, this is not enough. He said that while a small group of researchers may have access to the site, once the deposits are removed, "they will be lost forever, and so not available for future study as new methodologies become available in volcanology."

Scandone added: "It's true: access has been granted to one volcanologist and his collaborator from the University of Naples Federico II. No other volcanologists have been granted access. Meanwhile, the deposits are being removed… The selected volcanologist has no say in preserving some sections in place for future study; nor can he invite additional colleagues to join him."

Excavations at Pompeii are ongoing. The most recent project involved digging at Regio V—an area covering 0.4 square miles, sitting between the House of the Silver Wedding and the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto. Over the last year, researchers at the site made several new discoveries, including electoral inscriptions, frescoes and the skull of a fugitive.

Correction 7/17, 11.20 a.m. The original article identified Vesuvius as Europe's only active volcano, which is incorrect.