What 250 Years of Excavation Have Taught Us About Pompeii

The Forum at Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the Backgrouund
Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

Pompeii is arguably the most famous archaeological site in the world. There has never been a site as well preserved, as evocative, or as memorable as that of Pompeii, the luxurious resort for the Roman Empire, which was buried along with its sister cities of Stabiae and Herculaneum under the ash and lava erupted from Mount Vesuvius during the fall of 79 AD.

Pompeii is located in the area of Italy known, then as now, as Campania. The vicinity of Pompeii was first occupied during the Middle Neolithic, and by the 6th century BC, it came under the rule of the Etruscans. The city's origins and the original name are unknown, nor are we clear on the sequence of settlers there, but it seems clear that Etruscans, Greeks, Oscans, and Samnites competed to occupy the land prior to the Roman conquest. The Roman occupation began in the 4th century BC, and the town reached its heyday when the Romans turned it into a seaside resort, beginning 81 BC.

Pompeii as a Thriving Community

At the time of its destruction, Pompeii was a thriving commercial port at the mouth of the Sarno River in southwestern Italy, on the southern flank of Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii's known buildings--and there are many that were preserved under the mud and ashfall--include a Roman basilica, built ca 130-120 BC, and an amphitheater built circa 80 BC. The forum contained several temples; the streets included hotels, food vendors and other eating places, a purpose-built lupanar, and other brothels, and gardens within the city walls.

But probably of most fascination to us today are the look into private homes, and the eerie negative images of human bodies caught in the eruption: the utter humanness of the tragedy seen at Pompeii.

Dating the Eruption and an Eyewitness

Romans watched the spectacular eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, many from a safe distance, but one early naturalist named Pliny (the Elder) watched while he helped evacuate refugees on the Roman warships under his charge. Pliny was killed during the eruption, but his nephew (called Pliny the Younger), watching the eruption from Misenum about 30 kilometers (18 miles) away, survived and wrote about the events in letters that form the basis of our eye-witness knowledge about it.

The traditional date of the eruption is August 24th, supposed to have been the date reported in Pliny the Younger's letters, but as early as 1797, the archaeologist Carlo Maria Rosini questioned the date on the basis of the remains of fall fruits he found preserved at the site, such as chestnuts, pomegranates, figs, raisins, and pine cones. A recent study of the distribution of the wind-blown ash at Pompeii (Rolandi and colleagues) also supports a fall date: the patterns shows that prevailing winds blew from a direction most prevalent in the fall. Further, a silver coin found with a victim in Pompeii was struck after September 8th, AD 79.

If only Pliny's manuscript had survived! Unfortunately, we only have copies. It's possible that a scribal error crept in regarding the date: compiling all the data together, Rolandi and colleagues (2008) propose a date of October 24th for the eruption of the volcano.


The excavations at Pompeii are an important watershed in the history of archaeology, as it was among the earliest of archaeological excavations, tunneled into by the Bourbon rulers of Naples and Palermo beginning in the fall of 1738. The Bourbons undertook full-scale excavations in 1748--much to the belated distress of modern archaeologists who would have preferred they wait until better techniques were available.

Of the many archaeologists associated with Pompeii and Herculaneum are pioneers of the field Karl Weber, Johann-Joachim Winckelmann, and Guiseppe Fiorelli; a team was sent to Pompeii by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who had a fascination with archaeology and was responsible for the Rosetta stone ending up in the British Museum. 

Modern research at the site and others affected by the '79 Vesuvian eruption was conducted by the Anglo-American Project in Pompeii, led by Rick Jones at the University of Bradford, with colleagues at Stanford and the University of Oxford. Several field schools were conducted at Pompeii between 1995 and 2006, mostly targeting the section known as Regio VI. Many more sections of the city remain unexcavated, left for future scholars with improved techniques.

Pottery at Pompeii

Pottery was always an important element of Roman society and it has figured in many of the modern studies of Pompeii. According to recent research (Peña and McCallum 2009), thin-walled pottery tableware and lamps were manufactured elsewhere and brought into the city to sell. Amphorae were used to pack goods such as garum and wine and they too were brought in to Pompeii. That makes Pompeii somewhat anomalous among Roman cities, in that the largest portion of their pottery was produced outside its city walls.

A ceramics works called the Via Lepanto was located just outside the walls on the Nuceria-Pompeii road. Grifa and colleagues (2013) report that the workshop was rebuilt after the AD 79 eruption, and continued to produce red-painted and burnished tablewares up until the Vesuvius eruption of 472.

The red-slipped tableware called terra sigillata was found in numerous locations in and around Pompeii and using petrographic and elemental trace analysis of 1,089 sherds, McKenzie-Clark (2011) concluded that all but 23 were manufactured in Italy, accounting for 97% of the total investigated. Scarpelli et al. (2014) found that black slips on Vesuvian pottery were made of ferrous materials, consisting of one or more of magnetite, hercynite and/or hematite.

Since the closure of the excavations at Pompeii in 2006, researchers have been busy publishing their results. Here are a few of the most recent ones, but there are many others:

  • In Benefiel's (2010) study of graffiti on the walls of the House of Maius Castricius is documented several pieces of incised romantic graffiti in different areas of the house. A conversation of 11 graffiti inscribed in a stairwell appears to be a literary and romantic conversation between two individuals. Most of the lines are original romantic poetry or plays on known texts, arranged vertically in two columns. Benefiel says the Latin lines hint at a kind of one-up-man-ship between two or more people.
  • Piovesan and colleagues studied paints and pigments at Pompeii's Temple of Venus, identifying a range of mural colors made from the natural earth, minerals, and a few rare artificial pigments--black, yellow, red and brown ochre, cinnabar, Egyptian blue, green earth (mostly celadonite or glauconite) and white calcite.
  • Cova (2015) reports on the alae--architectural wings--in many houses in the section of Pompeii known as Regio VI, and how the size and shape of the alae may reflect socioeconomic changes in the Late Republic/Early Empire period. Miiello et al (2010) investigated construction phases in Regio VI by the variations of mortar.
  • Astrid Lundgren at the University of Oslo published her dissertation on Pompeii in 2014, focusing on male sexuality and prostitution; Severy-Hoven is another scholar investigating the incredible wealth of erotica discovered at Pompeii.
  • Murphy et al. (2013) looked at middens (garbage dumps) and was able to identify evidence that the waste is primarily kitchen food preparation of olives, grapes, figs, cereals, and pulses. However, they found little evidence for crop-processing, suggesting that the food was processed outside of the city before being brought to market.


This article is part of the About.com Dictionary of Archaeology:

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Hirst, K. Kris. "What 250 Years of Excavation Have Taught Us About Pompeii." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/pompeii-archaeology-famous-roman-tragedy-167411. Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 26). What 250 Years of Excavation Have Taught Us About Pompeii. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pompeii-archaeology-famous-roman-tragedy-167411 Hirst, K. Kris. "What 250 Years of Excavation Have Taught Us About Pompeii." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/pompeii-archaeology-famous-roman-tragedy-167411 (accessed June 5, 2023).