Pompeii is transforming into a high-tech research center to study climate change and archaeological preservation

POMPEII, Italy—A thin band of smoke rises from the cone of Mount Vesuvius, a subtle warning that this supervolcano is still very much alive. A few miles up the flanks of the ancient ruins of Pompeii, a group of 55 experts wearing white hazmat suits and yellow hard hats are pounding what remains of the buildings of this once bustling city. They are installing sensors that will measure a number of indicators, from dampness in the stone walls to vibrations from seismic activity in the volcano and nearby road network, and transmit data to a research team in the city. neighbor of Salerno.

There are few places in the world where the effects of climate change can be studied with such precision or where human error has threatened conservation so much. Excavation work began at the end of the 16th century and was interrupted and restarted due to natural disasters, wars and budget crises. Some areas that were excavated early were left exposed to the elements, only to be buried again after restorers realized the ruins were better protected underground.

Only two thirds of the city of Pompeii have been excavated. Each time a new segment is unearthed, much is learned not only about the history of the city, but also about the ancient Romans who inhabited it. Recently discovered human and animal remains have helped researchers better understand how the volcano erupted and how the victims of Pompeii died. A treasure trove of tiny lucky charms found in 2019 included carved clenched fists and tiny penises, shedding new light on the lives of slaves in Pompeii.

A restoration specialist works inside the House of Lovers in Pompeii.

Alexandria Sage/Getty

But as researchers uncover new areas of Pompeii that have been protected from the elements for millennia, they hope to quantify exactly what extreme weather and human neglect have done to these significant ruins. The goal is to take these lessons forward and use them to protect Pompeii, and other archaeological digs, from a looming future crisis that is coming faster than expected: climate change.

The multi-million dollar project sponsored by the European Union, the Italian Ministry of Culture and the Civil Engineering Department of the University of Salerno aims to turn these haunted ruins into one of the world’s leading research sites for study climate change. “Satellite data will be important; we can use it to observe changes in depth and detail, with infrared, drones, MEMS technology, which involves small box-shaped sensors that are connected by radio waves,” Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of the Pompeii Archaeological Park, “With these methods, we could understand relatively clearly what had happened and act as quickly as possible before any damage occurred. The presence of water and humidity in the walls often led to collapses in the past.”

The new project builds on the so-called Great Pompeii Project implemented in 2014 by site director Massimo Osanna, who is now the general director of all museums and archaeological sites for the Italian Ministry of Culture. The $117 million project reversed years of poor maintenance that led to the collapse of dozens of ancient structures in 2010 and 2011.

The new project will build on previous data, but incorporate new monitoring systems that will help park managers better project the ruins, both exposed areas and those still buried under the ash crust from the eruption. 79 AD which covered the city. “Specifically, the frequent passage between extremes of drought and intense rains increases the physiological stress to which millennial structures are exposed,” Luigi Petti, who leads the project for the University of Salerno, told The Daily Beast. “Gusts of wind and storms could indeed cause a rapid deterioration of the ancient buildings present in Pompeii and, in the event of exceptional events, cause dangerous conditions. The project enriches the considerable skills and tools already present in the park with cutting-edge research.

Petti said the goal of the project is to develop innovative solutions for heritage monitoring, leveraging state-of-the-art technologies to develop specific procedures and methodologies for screening for conditions of instability, deterioration and fragility. which can cause structural collapse.

Using infrared technology will allow those analyzing the data to move from previous “instant” data collection to a more dynamic data set, Petti said. The sensors will be connected to satellites run by the Italian environmental research agency, ISPRA, which already plays a crucial role in observing active Italian volcanoes such as Mount Etna in Sicily and the volcanic island of Stromboli, one of the most active in the world.

Zuchtriegel believes the project will not only help save the ruins of Pompeii, but also provide a roadmap for projecting other archaeological areas. “We already have worrying data today concerning the effects of climate change on heritage; we must not close our eyes but work hard so that the climate crisis does not also become a crisis of cultural heritage,” he said, adding that they are aware that new data must lead to action. “We are already awash in data. If we’re not careful, new data will just be another burden.

Previous individual projects, such as the renovation of the site’s Temple of Neptune, were examples of excavations that had not been sufficiently protected after their discovery. Inadvertently, these experiments offered insight into the kind of degradation that awaited these sites if they were not protected from climate change.

With lessons learned, areas of Pompeii Park that are extremely vulnerable can now be sheltered either by being covered or through other improvements that protect specific areas, including exposed ancient murals and mosaics.

The first phase of the new project to install the sensors and set up the surveillance is due to be completed by the end of 2022 and is being undertaken by students from Salerno who receive six-month scholarships to install the systems. After that, the project will run for renewable terms of three years and may expand to other universities, including some overseas that have shown interest in data sharing.

The monitoring project will have no impact on tourism, Zuchtriegel said. The 3 million tourists who walk through these ruins every year won’t notice a thing since the monitors in the areas open to the public will be hidden. Crazy to think that all those visitors, lured into exploring one of ancient Rome’s most famous archaeological sites, will unwittingly enter one of the world’s most modern research efforts.

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