November 9, 2007

Faculty Insight: Pompeii
An interview with Shannon Rogers Flynt

Assistant Professor, Classics/Art
Ph.D., Art History and Archaeology, University of Missouri
M.A., Anthropology,  University of Alabama
B.A., Math/History, Samford University


"... when I go there–and especially when I was working there–I see more of the stories of life...."

A portrait preserved at Pompeii depicts a Roman coupleDr. Shannon Flynt specializes in Roman archaeology and served on the archaeological team of The Anglo-American Project In Pompeii in that program's 1996 season. Since then she has worked on excavations in Austria, Wales and Ireland and lived in Austria as a Fulbright Fellow while she studied the ancient Roman province of Noricum. She regularly leads Samford students in January term courses in Italy, with emphasis on ancient ancient Roman art and architecture. The Belltower sought her insight as a Pompeii exhibit opened at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Belltower: Pompeii was home to perhaps 20,000 people at the time of its destruction by volcanic eruption in August of 79.  How many escaped?

Flynt: It's believed that he majority got out, but the eruption had two effects on Pompeii. When Vesuvius erupted that morning, the volcanic stone and ash started raining down. It was heavy enough over the course of the day to tear down roofs, but it stopped and some people may have gone back into the town, thinking the eruption was over. But the second part of the eruption—the pyroclastic surge, in which those super-hot gasses came through–got the people who might have come back in. It just incinerated people where they stood. And I guess that would have been the luckiest group. Those who died earlier–who choked on the ash or were trapped and suffocated or killed by collapsing roofs or hit by debris– probably had it worse than the people who were standing there and were instantly burned alive.

Shannon Flynt and her English colleague Barry Hobson pause during survey work at PompeiiWas the destruction of Pompeii, then, something like the devastation of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, with a certain amount of advance warning? Those who remained were simply overtaken by multiple disasters?

Yes, it just caught up with everybody. And there may have been people who said, "I don't have anywhere to go" or, "I'll wait it out and see." There had been an earthquake related to Vesuvius in 62 that caused massive destruction in Pompeii, but that's not the same thing as a volcanic eruption. They probably knew what Vesuvius was, but it had never done that in their lifetime.

So ash and stone from Vesuvius sealed the city intact. Is that what makes Pompeii such an important archaeological site?

Yes. It was just flash-frozen in the course of two days exactly as people left it.

Did you make any exciting discoveries during your work?

Me? No. One of the things that made this project different from others is that a lot of work is done on the 79 level, but not many projects excavate below that surface. This project did, trying to get back to the earliest levels of settlement. So there was a focus on architecture, evaluation of standing walls and below-ground remains that enabled the project to look at how one little city block changed over time. One thing the project revealed was that although everybody said the House of the Surgeon was the oldest house at Pompeii, there were foundations beneath that house. Another big part of the project was the collection and evaluation of ecofacts—botanical remains. We did lots of flotation tank work, even for the tiniest seeds.

One of the most interesting things was that the middle of a main room–where a little pool had been, with a cistern beneath it and an open roof above it to collect water for the household supply—had been blown out by an Allied bomb during WWII. Apparently, it was a stray bomb meant for Naples.

Ghost town: A view up a preserved street at PompeiiIt's easier to imagine Indiana Jones dodging bombs than sorting seeds. What's the most common misconception about what archaeologists do?

I think it's that most archaeologists are finding the big stuff, fully intact, that goes straight into a museum and somehow makes money–that you find the treasure and somehow get money from it. That's the way it was in the early days of archaeology, when the king of Naples could send in people [to excavate Pompeii]. He got to keep all the stuff and that's all they looked for. They wanted the big stuff, whereas archaeology now focuses on the smallest stuff. It's always about context, the total picture, looking at every small detail to reconstruct what the past was like. Often that means just looking at stains in the dirt. There's only so much you can learn from even the most amazing statue in isolation.

Archaeologists will excavate less and less. It's too expensive and it's too time-consuming. But it becomes more and more possible to do less invasive things. That's what archaeologists try to do. You can use a variety of  ground-penetrating radar devices that help you get an idea of what's below ground, and then you can be much more selective about where you dig. It's not about, "grab a shovel and go."

It's a reasonable critique to point out that warehouses and universities and galleries are full of material, recovered by excavations w hich has never been studied. People have never published or written about or analysed the things they've found, and there's probably enough to keep people busy, never to excavate again anywhere. It takes years and years of study just to figure out what you've got.

What was a typical day like for you and your fellow archaeologists at Pompeii?

It depended on which team you were working on.  If you were doing ecofacts, then it was sifting dirt through fine mesh or putting it in water tanks to see what floated to the surface and skimming stuff off and packaging it up. If you were with artifacts you were washing potsherds and documenting them. Excavating wasn't too hard if you were just scraping dirt with your trowel as you were trying to trace levels down, but drawing pictures of those levels was painstaking. The hardest physical labor was probably when you'd come down to a floor surface—and that means [ancient] concrete floor. Then the pickaxes would come out and you'd have to go through it. First, of course, you'd document it very carefully, and then you had to destroy it.

We'd go up to the site at about 7:00 a.m. or earlier to start the day, before it opened to tourists. And walking up the same route every morning through that city, I felt that I really got to know the site well. And, of course, the advantage of being on that team was that we got to see things that tourists on a day trip don't get to see. On any given day a small selection of houses will be open. They just don't have the staff to keep the whole site open.

What percentage of archaeology is actual in-the-dirt work?
I can only estimate, but for this project they worked for maybe 12 years on one small city block. That's six weeks out of each year. The rest of the year, then, would be spent writing up and describing what they did. So that's another 40-something weeks, compared to six weeks of digging, when you're probably only describing one season. It might take years to really look at the material you brought back.

What does one study to become an archaeologist?

You need it all. Archaeology is a science that's stolen from everything—math, language,  history, literature, architecture, engineering....My friend from the Pompeii project–Barry Hobson–had a long career as a physician in Bradford, England,  then retired and decided to go back to school to become an archaeologist when he was around 50. He went back to Pompeii every year as a member of the excavation team, overseeing the excavations, and he's now finishing a book on Roman toilets—he looked at them from Pompeii all the way to North Africa. It's never too late!

"Cave Canem" (Beware of Dog): An ancient floor mosaic reminds visitors of everyday concerns before the eruption. photo courtesy of Shannon FlyntFor most of us, the terrible last moments of the city are the most obvious point of entry to the Pompeii story. What does the site mean to you?

The Birmingham Museum of Art exhibit is called "Stories From An Eruption," and the focus is on the popularity of Pompeii as a destroyed city. It focuses a lot on the death, and when you go to Pompeii today you're struck by the ghost town feeling if you're lucky enough to be there when it's quiet. You do see a ruined city. But when I go there–and especially when I was working there–I see more of the stories of life. Archaeology at Pompeii reveals not just the few hours people had at what they thought was the end of their lives, but all the little everyday stuff that survived and which you don't always get from other sites. Archaeology is about reconstructing people's lives.

More Info

Department of Classics

Anglo-American Project in Pompeii

Birmingham Museum of Art