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Volcano Experts And Archaeologists Are Clashing Over Access To Study Pompeii


Pompeii and Herculaneum, not far from Naples on Italy's western coast, were buried in ash and pumice in the year 79. That's not 1979. That's just 79. They lay there preserved for 1,500 years. And as they've been slowly uncovered, Pompeii especially has proven to be an archeological gold mine.

SOPHIE HAY: Pompeii has got so much to offer the study of the Romans because so much has survived.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sophie Hay is an archaeologist working with Cambridge University.

HAY: Here, in Pompeii, you have from the sort of the elite members of society right down to the people who were baking bread, making that horrendous fish sauce that they would use in their food. You just get this kind of complete picture of what Roman life was like.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But all that ash and pumice that preserved Pompeii had to come from somewhere. And that somewhere is Mount Vesuvius, a still active volcano that's very much of interest to a different set of scientists who also want to be digging in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

CHRISTOPHER KILBURN: These sites are unique, not only because of their archaeology but also because they allow us to understand in detail just how the volcano killed people and damaged and destroyed the towns.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's volcanologist Christopher Kilburn. He's with the Hazard Centre at University College London. Kilburn is part of an international group of volcanologists who want more access to Pompeii. So he helped write an open letter published in the journal Nature.

KILBURN: Pointing out the fact that access to the new excavations at Pompeii were being restricted to the volcanological community. The difficulty is perhaps the value of volcanology has been underestimated compared with the value that the archaeologists see in the excavations.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Roberto Scandone is a researcher at the Vesuvius Observatory and another author of that letter in Nature. He points to the obvious - that to see the frescoes and intricately tiled floors, the courtyards and fountains ancient Romans passed by 2,000 years ago, archaeologists removed stuff the volcanologists want to get their hands and instruments on. Even removing the ash and pumice hole and taking it to a lab has an effect on the deposits. And it can destroy them.

ROBERTO SCANDONE: If you destroy the deposit, you will not ever have these possibility.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And as in so many things, there's an element of class in this.

KILBURN: Archaeology is a classical and well-established discipline. And I think by comparison, volcanology is seen a bit as an upstart or as an intruder. And I have to say, there has been history of a teeny weeny bit of snobbery that sort of the archaeology is sort of the aristocracy. But volcanology is rather for the more common people. But we're starting to learn that by combining resources we get a much greater understanding of what happened, for example, during the eruption. The volcanology explains how the people died, and the archaeology explains how the people lived beforehand.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The feud doesn't look permanent. There are signs of some thawing between the two fields. Archaeologist Sophie Hay of Cambridge.

HAY: Well, I know - I mean, you can't really understand Pompeii and everything that survives there without understanding the geology of how it was preserved and the nature of the eruption.

KILBURN: I think your attitudes are changing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Christopher Kilburn.

KILBURN: And we would hope to be able to forge much closer links in the future for everybody's benefit, to be honest. We will all gain by talking to each other more often.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So here's hoping archaeologists and volcanologists can learn to dig deep and find common ground. And here's also hoping they realize at some point that history has lessons for anyone who spends lots of time in Pompeii. It's a dangerous place. Keep your eye on that volcano. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.