As It Happens

Volcanologists say archeologists are hogging study of Pompeii all to themselves

Volcanologists and archeologists are clashing over who gets to study the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, and what gets preserved in the excavations.

Volcano experts want more access to Pompeii to preserve volcanic deposits before they're gone forever

The snow-covered peak of Mount Vesuvius volcano is seen from the archaeological excavations of Pompeii in Naples, southern Italy, in January 2017. (Cesare Abbate/EPA)
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Volcano expert Christopher Kilburn admits it's a lot more interesting to look at the meticulously restored streets and buildings of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii than "a pile of rocks stuck in the wall."

But still, he says more care needs to be taken to preserve the historic site's volcanic deposits so scientists can better understand the powerful Mount Vesuvius volcano that erupted in 79 AD, burying the city and its residents in volcanic ash. 

The University College London researcher is one of four volcanologists who wrote an open letter in the journal Nature calling for more access to the site outside Naples, Italy, where they say "volcanic deposits are being sacrificed during archeological excavations."

"We're not demanding parity or anything," Kilburn told As It Happens guest host Megan Williams. "But I think it's important that some concession is given to the volcanology."

A national effort to preserve history 

Archeologists have been exploring the remnants of Pompeii since the 1700s, unearthing artifacts that paint a detailed picture of what life was like in the ancient city before the devastating eruption. 

Because the town was largely preserved under ash, it offers a rare glimpse of a place and its people frozen in time. 

In an effort to prevent that history from decaying, Italy launched the Great Pompeii Project in 2015, opening up a new round of excavations aimed at restoring and preserving the UNESCO World Heritage site, which attracts millions of visitors every year.

A picture shows the cast of a man killed by extreme heat when a volcano erupted over the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. (Carol Court/AFP/Getty Images)

But Kilburn and his colleagues worry that a key part of that history will be lost if volcanologists aren't able to preserve and study at least some portions of the volcanic deposits as they currently exist. 

"The rock isn't useless," he said. "It actually contains a huge amount of information that maybe only certain specialists can evaluate."

And that includes information that could help prevent future disasters like the eruption over Pompeii, he said.

"You can see how, for example, clouds of hot gas and volcanic fragments came racing down the side of the volcano and you can see how they interacted or moved around buildings or even knocked them down," Kilburn said.

"From this we get some idea of the dynamic properties of these clouds, and from that information we can start thinking about: Are there ways of protecting or mitigating the hazards from these types of processes in the future, not just at Vesuvius but at other exposed volcanoes worldwide?"

Kilburn and his colleagues are calling on Italy's government to ensue that "strategic portions" of the volcanic deposits are left "untouched" during future excavations.

Archeologists say they already work with volcanologists 

The Archaeological Park of Pompeii did not immediately respond to As It Happens' request for comment.

But the park's general director, Massimo Osanna, told Newsweek the archeological team has a longstanding agreement with the University of Naples Federico II to have volcanologists study the site.

"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," he said.

An archaeologist at work during excavations in the Regio V area at the Pompeii archaeological site in August 2018. (Cesare Abbate/EPA-EFE)

But Kilburn and his colleagues say only two volcanologists from the university have had access to the site, and that's just not enough to do the work.

"It's a bit like saying, 'Well, we'll just have two archaeologists to help dig out the ruins,'" he said.

"You need a team because volcanology is a mature and sophisticated science and you need skill sets that range all the way from geophysics to geochemistry to understand what the deposits can tell us."

Let's work together, volcanologist says 

Kilburn says this turf war over Pompeii comes down to priorities. 

"It's a famous archeological site. Archeology is a much older and well-established discipline to volcanology, so there's just a heritage that the archeology is really important," he said.

"And in a way, volcanology is a bit of a newcomer I suppose. At least that's how it's perceived."

Volcanologists say the historical site of Pompeii contains volcanic deposits that would help them understand the powerful Mount Vesuvius, which looms over Naples. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

But it doesn't have to be that way, he said. Volcanologists and archeologists can work side by side to get the best possible understanding of Pompeii and its people. 

"To an outsider, you'd think surely we can just get on if we're digging, doing an excavation, we allow the archaeologists to look at the archeology and the volcanologist to look at the volcanology," he said.

"In principle, there shouldn't be any particular controversy or conflicts because we learn from each other."

And it needs to happen now, he said, before it's too late.

"We have an opportunity to better understand one of the most dangerous volcanic phenomena on the planet, and the combination of deposits next to buildings is actually quite rare and the degree of preservation is excellent, and that's also quite rare around the world," he said.

"Once those deposits are dug out, that's it. That information will be gone forever."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Kevin Robertson.

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