Pompeii in peril as ancient walls collapse
The Italian prime minister has called an emergency meeting this week to address Pompeii’s precarious fate. Who should be in charge of saving this archaeological treasure?
It is one of the world’s greatest ancient sites; a Roman town smothered for centuries by layers of volcanic ash after a deadly eruption nearly 2,000 years ago.
Since its discovery in 1748, Pompeii has withstood earthquakes and even survived second world war bombs. But on Wednesday, Italy’s government was forced to hold an emergency meeting after it was discovered that ferocious rainfall had caused severe damage to a number of Pompeii’s structures, including the walls of the Temple of Venus.
The government says it will donate two million euros in emergency funding, but Italy’s culture budget has been drastically cut in recent years. Italy’s new prime minister, Matteo Renzi, has asked Italian businesses to fund the repairs instead, arguing that private firms must contribute to the maintenance of Italy’s national heritage.
Pompeii is an important tourist draw with an estimated 3.5m visitors each year. Preserved in volcanic ash for centuries, it offers an extraordinary snapshot of ancient Roman life. Visitors can wander down streets, marvel at political graffiti and even admire a ‘beware of the dog‘ mosaic sign at the entrance to one house.
Yet the question of how to save the world’s ancient marvels gets more complicated every year. Tourism boosts local economies, but vast numbers of visitors can cause considerable damage and pollution.
In 2009 inhabitants of Easter Island, home to the world-famous moai statues, blocked the island’s airport, complaining that too many tourists were damaging the environment.
Commercial companies are even less welcome. In 2000, Peruvians were furious to discover that a centuries-old granite sun clock at the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, the ‘lost city of the Incas’, had been damaged after a crane smashed into it while a US production company was shooting a beer advert.
Back to reality
Who can save Pompeii? Renzi’s proposals to privatise Pompeii are controversial — ‘monstrous’ according to one newspaper. Tourist packages promoted by private firms could see even more visitors rush to the site, which could damage the fragile infrastructure even further. There are already concerns that a new Pompeii blockbuster will attract an unsustainable number of tourists. Besides, the main concern of private firms is to make a profit, not cultural upkeep and conservation.
But visitors provide a crucial source of income, and more funding directed by rich companies could be the only way to preserve these ancient treasures. The current Italian government is crippled by austerity, and the limited money it does have should be spent on schools and hospitals, not ancient archaeological sites.
- Should Pompeii be run by the Italian government, or by private companies?
- Is it important that ancient archaeological sites are preserved? Why?
- Research the history of one of the ‘new’ seven wonders of the world, using our Expert Links. Present your findings to the class, explaining why you think its preservation is important.
- In groups of four, make a list of government-funded services or projects you think should be given greater priority than the protection of archaeological sites. Then create a list of things that should be given less priority. Explain your reasons.
Some People Say...
“There are more important issues than preserving archaeological sites.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Does it matter if a few ancient walls fall down?
- Yes! Pompeii is incredibly important because of what it tells us about our past; it is, ‘without doubt the best place in the world to step back into the Roman world,’ according to the historian Mary Beard. Places like Pompeii are testimony to the ingenuity of humankind and must be preserved for the enjoyment and education of future generations. Can you imagine living in a world without the Eqyptian pyramids or the Taj Mahal?
- If it’s so important, then why hasn’t more been done?
- The Italian government is in dire financial straits, and choosing how to allocate its budget is extremely difficult. Despite international pressure from UNESCO and the EU, Italian politicians must concentrate on more pressing issues such as poverty, education and health.
- During the second world war, important roads, railways, bridges, and overpasses for the Germans were located near Pompeii, whose ruins were badly damaged by a series of bombings carried out by American and British fighters.
- Aged 39, Matteo Renzi became Italy’s youngest prime minister last month. He has vowed to bring ‘radical and immediate change’ to Italy’s struggling economy.
- The famous mosaic shows a ferocious dog and the Latin words ‘cave canem’.
- Created by the early Rapa Nui people between the 10th and the 16th centuries, these gigantic stone figures have intrigued humans for centuries — little is known about why they were built.
- Machu Picchu
- Built in the 15th century by the Inca emperor Pachacuti, Machu Picchu was abandoned before the arrival of Spanish forces led by Francisco Pizarro.The forgotten settlement therefore avoided the ravages of the conquistadores and was found to be exceptionally well preserved when it was excavated after being rediscovered in 1911 by the US explorer Hiram Bingham.
- An American disaster movie based on the destruction of Pompeii was released in February this year, starring Kiefer Sutherland.