Monday, July 07, 2008

What sort of emergency?

You may well have read over the weekend about a 'state of emergency' being declared at Pompeii. To anyone with an interest in Roman history, this will not exactly be a surprise. One regularly sees papers, or chapters, or news items, about how Pompeii and Herculaneum are about to be lost for ever. From personal experience, I can tell you how much less of the site (particularly in the private houses) was open in 2007 as compared to 1999 or 1986. It's not too surprising. Pompeii was never meant to last as long as it has. The bright colours of the graffiti on the walls was only meant to last for a short period, weeks, or moths at the most - it's not surprising that after two hundred and fifty years of being exposed to the Italian summer, it's all faded. The interior decoration was mostly repainted every decade. The houses were probably meant to be more robust, but most of them lost their roofs, and hence their structural integrity.

What interests me is some radical differences in how the story had been reported. The BBC report is much as you'd expect - statistics about how much is being lost every year through lack of funds. The Guardian has a rather different approach. Hardly a word there about the threat to the archaeology. Instead, the report is all about the poverty of the tourist experience:

The daily Corriere della Sera this week deplored the squalid conditions at Pompeii, where visitors run a gauntlet of hawkers and self-appointed car park wardens to a vast and poorly signposted complex with no restaurants and just three toilet facilities.

For a start, this seems a bit unfair. There aren't many toilets, but it's five, rather than three, and, unless it's closed in the past year, there is a restaurant in the shell of the Forum Baths. There are free maps given out at the entrance, and the official guides published by Electa Napoli in collaboration with the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei are as good as any other Electa publication (i.e. an exemplary model of how to do an archaeological guide).

The real question, though, is which report represents the intent behind the move to appoint a special commissioner. If he is to be led by the need to protect the archaeology above any other considerations, then that's by and large a good thing (though giving his salary directly to the Soprintendenza would be better). But if the initiative is to be tourist-led, then I rather share some of the qualms of Mary Beard (who, of course, blogged this before I got around to it). There are no toilets except by the exits and entrances because there's no running water on the site. Do we really want the roads of Pompeii ripped up to lay water pipes? Or Portaloos outside the amphitheatre? And where would one put further restaurants? In some of the houses? In one of the large gardens at the eastern end of the site?

So what is this all about? Protecting the site, or (as is mentioned in the video accompanying the BBC report) exploiting a cash cow?

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