In the past year, excavations at the ancient Roman city of Pompeii have uncovered a 2,000-year-old washing machine, a bedroom used by slaves and a fresco depicting an ancestor of pizza (minus the tomatoes — they won’t appear in Europe for at least another 10 centuries), the National Geographic”.
None of these discoveries, however, resulted from new excavations in the 20-meter layer of ash that covered the city after the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. For decades, the Italian government imposed a moratorium on any new excavations at Pompeii. That means most of the finds are byproducts of efforts to preserve and restore what was already discovered, according to Stephen Ellis, a professor of Roman archeology at the University of Cincinnati who worked on the excavations of the ancient city’s Porta Sabia neighborhood.
“When they excavated the city, they created a kind of cliff edge of volcanic debris,” Ellis says, adding that landslides and sinkholes have occurred along the previously excavated areas, causing an international outcry. “So they’re rebuilding those places and strengthening them, and to do that they had to dig a little bit off the edge.”
Pompeii, of course, has more secrets to uncover. Estimates vary, but between 15 and 25% of the city remains covered. For many archaeologists, however, the question is not so much what is left to discover, but whether they should keep digging at all.
“We have enough of Pompeii excavated for the general public. We have enough of Pompeii for the scientific community to learn from,” said the professor of Roman archaeology. “What we really need to do is preserve it as best we can for the future.”