Pompeii: Frozen in Time or an Ever-Evolving Landscape?

Pompeii is traditionally remembered for the eruption which covered the city in ash. However, there is more to this story than most people realize...

Jul 5, 2024By Eleanor Clark, MA Ancient Mediterranean History / Archaeology, BA History

pompeii archeological site frozen evolving


Pompeii is known as the “city frozen in time.” This memorable name has caught the public’s imagination but it does overlook many aspects of Pompeii’s ever-evolving landscape. With constant restoration works and new exhibitions, Pompeii has not only been shaped by its ancient past but also by the people who interact with the site today. From the numerous school groups and TV crews who have explored this fantastic example of everyday life in the Roman world, to the archaeologists and conservationists who fight against nature to preserve it, Pompeii’s story is a never-ending narrative full of twists and turns.


The History of Pompeii

An unusually quiet side street in Pompeii, photo by author, Eleanor Clark, 2023


In October 79 CE, around 2000 Pompeiians lost their lives and a city that once covered 160 acres vanished under a blanket of ash and debris. A terrifying eruption from Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that towers above the Bay of Naples, buried the city, leaving it abandoned and undiscovered for around 1600 years. Most of the Romans in the area believed Mount Vesuvius to be a mountain; very few had identified that a potentially dangerous volcano sat on their doorstep. Even Pliny the Elder, the famous Natural Historian, did not list Mount Vesuvius in his list of volcanoes.


While many sites struck by natural disasters in the ancient Roman world were rebuilt, Pompeii was left abandoned. There is much speculation as to why. It may have been due to superstition, as it was seen as dangerous or perhaps disrespectful to build on a site where so many had died. However, it is probably more likely that it was due to the lack of funding/resources available at the time.


Emperor Titus immediately sent aid to help the survivors begin again; this was probably to help his image as he had just become Emperor and needed to solidify his position. However, as Rome was also hit by a fire in 80 CE, and Titus himself passed away in the following year, funding was prioritized for closer to home. Therefore, the city of Pompeii was left buried, until its rediscovery in the 16th century by the architect Domenico Fontana.

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Rediscovery and Excavations

The Amphitheatre, Pompeii, 1870, Source: Google Arts & Culture


While the town of Pompeii was abandoned, others around the Bay of Naples were rebuilt after the eruption. This can be seen at Stabiae, a holiday retreat for rich Romans; several other towns appear to have been reinhabited post-eruption. Historical evidence for this is challenging to analyze and will hopefully receive further study in the coming years. Therefore, contrary to popular myths, this area was not completely frozen in time.


The towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as the luxury villas at Stabiae and Oplontis, were rediscovered in numerous campaigns, although the initial findings were often completely accidental. The initial discovery of Pompeii was in the 16th century, but it was not until the 17th century that proper explorations began.


The first sponsored excavation was funded by Charles III of Bourbon, the King of Naples, in 1748. This was mostly about treasure hunting and recovering high-quality artifacts, especially those that used precious metals and materials; many were placed in private collections in Naples and can still be found there today. Some famous wall paintings were removed and taken to be framed elsewhere. Others suffered tremendous damage, and sadly, some are beyond repair. Some houses were even backfilled after clearance; the increase in pressure thanks to the added earth caused further problems for these structures.


Systematic excavations still take place today. This includes restorations and enhancements—sometimes for safety, sometimes for comprehension and the benefit of the public. The site does not only include the structures that were buried by the ash, but also the incredible sculptures, mosaics, and paintings which shape our understanding of Roman art today.


Pompeii Plaster Cast, 2023, via Pompeii Archaeological Park, Source: Pompeii Sites


Only 49 of 66 hectares have been excavated. In 1858, under Giuseppe Fiorelli (one of the most influential and important figures in Pompeii’s history), the town was divided into insulae and regiones, meaning city blocks and neighborhoods. Often the houses were named after discoveries found in each building, whether that be a specific mosaic or statue. Famous examples include the Insula of the Chaste Lovers, where a famous painting depicts two lovers sharing a kiss, or the House of the Golden Cupids, named after an engraving on two gold medallions of cupids which was found in the portico.


Additionally, owners of some of the houses have been rediscovered, through references or names found in structures such as the Bakery of Popidio Prisco or the House of the Cornelli. Fiorelli was instrumental in ensuring that the structures were excavated top down to try and gain as much stratigraphical data as possible. He was also instrumental in creating the first plaster casts that are famous throughout the world today.


While this technique destroyed the organic matter within the ash, it did manage to preserve the forms and facial expressions of the people of Pompeii. These plaster casts are another demonstration of how the city continued to have life post-eruption, as we can understand Roman lives, diets, clothing, and personal items from studying them. Thanks to ever-evolving scientific techniques, we are constantly learning more from these remains; their lives continue to be of importance to anthropologists, historians, and archaeologists.


Pompeii in the Modern World: How is the Site Changing?

Pompeii E-Journal, 2nd edition, May 2023, Source: Pompeii Sites


By reconstructing parts of the city using traditional techniques and materials found onsite, modern audiences are now able to interact with the ancient world. People can imagine a living and breathing Roman town and see themselves within it. They make their own mark on the city, leaving behind footprints, pollen, and insects, as well as their own motivations for being in Pompeii.


Excavations are ongoing, as are scientific studies. Each new discovery reaches an ever-increasing audience whose interest keeps the site protected and preserved in an environmentally friendly and historically relevant way.


Each director brings their own innovation and ideas to the project. Most recently, Pompeii has been connected by bus to the other sites in the area to try to ensure that visitor numbers are carefully monitored—not only to protect Pompeii from overcrowding and damage but to increase the prestige and relevance of the other less well-known sites in the area.


In the 21st century, the digital age has meant that several changes have been made to Pompeii over recent years, highlighting how it evolves and moves forward with the times. From regular social media updates and a new Pompeii Historical journal to TV documentaries, conferences and interviews, Pompeii and its team are constantly fighting to make the site as relevant and engaging as possible, to ensure its survival for future generations. These works are also presented in multiple languages, showing the international reach of the site.


The most recent excavations in Regio IX, and the social media tags and posts made to follow the progress of this campaign ensure that people across the world know within a few seconds what is being found at Pompeii. This gives scholars in different countries the chance to work on new materials, to debate new ideas, and to collaborate, thus helping to protect this World Heritage Site.


The Future of Pompeii: Why the Phrase “Frozen in Time” is Misleading

The Wolf Den, by Elodie Harper, published May 2021, Source: Elodieharper.com


Pompeii, as we have now seen, is unique for many reasons and has captured the public imagination across the world. But what does the future hold? Pompeii and its history are constantly being studied and re-evaluated, with new topics being assessed and examined to discover as much about the town’s past as possible. Breaking the stereotypical perception of the city as “frozen in time” is an essential part of this movement.


University excavations discover the pre-Roman life of Pompeii – digging deep into the foundations of many major structures, such as during the Casa Della Regina Project undertaken by Cornell University, or the excavations undertaken by Tulane University in Regio 1.14, reveal the many components that make up the world of Pompeii aside from its identity as a Roman town.


Hidden figures and stories are slowly being drawn out and discussed. Elodie Harper’s best-selling novel series, starting with The Wolf-Den has also helped to increase interest in the lives of those who inhabited the brothels in Pompeii, who leave very little trace on the traditional historical record. The Roman graffiti and images found in these brothels are exceptionally informative regarding attitudes in the Roman world.


View of Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius between the Stabiae and Nocera gates, photo by the author, Eleanor Clark, 2023


Pompeii cleverly rotates the opening times of different structures to ensure they can protect as many sites as possible, and restore those that need extra protection. In recent years, as part of the Great Pompeii Project, many new ventures have been initiated, such as using sheep to cut the grass in an effort to be more environmentally friendly. Additionally, they protect excavated parts of the site by using gabion baskets to add more support to the earthen walls to prevent them from collapsing. This can be seen at the House of Leda and the Swan on Via del Vesuvio.


To conclude, the future of Pompeii requires numerous elements working together. Protecting, preserving, and raising awareness about this site’s amazing wonders has been the priority of the directors for several years. This is the greatest evidence we have to demonstrate that Pompeii is not a city “frozen in time,” but an ever-evolving site that has adapted to the contemporary world. Pompeii aims to show not only what people expect to see but also unexpected stories to draw new audiences in.




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Author Image

By Eleanor ClarkMA Ancient Mediterranean History / Archaeology, BA HistoryEleanor is a British historian and archaeologist who currently lives and works in Northern Italy. She is a recent MA graduate from the University of Pavia and is currently teaching English before applying for PhDs in Italy. She is aiming to specialize in the ancient Roman world. Eleanor loves excavating ancient sites and has been lucky enough to work in Italy, Greece, Israel, and the UK, on sites such as ancient Messene, Rivanazzano, and the Agora in Athens. She is a keen writer, loves exploring new areas of history, and wants to get as many people interested in history as possible.