04 December 2009

Google Street View comes to Pompeii! Can we rebury it now?

The ruins of ancient Pompeii have hit Google Street View. This is the future of archaeology, folks: virtual walkthroughs of sites available anywhere, anytime, from anywhere in the world. It’s going to change things.

Check it out, it’s amazing.

Italy’s culture minister hopes this will boost tourism, but I hope something different: that Italy will do the politically inconvenient thing and rebury large portions of the old city. Yes, that’s right, I said it. We should record the whole city in 3D with high-resolution, multispectral imagery, then rebury most of Pompeii, with roofs over the rest.

Why? Because the remains of the ancient city are falling apart. And archaeology is destructive by nature. When you dig up a site – especially if you dig up walls made of anything but solid stone – what you find starts to deteriorate, immediately. The conservation situation at Pompeii is bad and getting worse.

It’s not for lack of expertise by the conservators – it’s just that no matter how much money you spend, walls without roofs and plaster on them are going to get damaged by exposure to the weather. The ‘pure’ thing, from the conservation perspective, is to avoid modern interventions at all costs. The only way to avoid roofing a site, and still conserve it, is reburial.

I can hear the howls already. I loved visiting the place myself. But 2.5 million visitors per year is unsustainable, and everybody knows it. If we want future generations to have anything to look at, something has to be done sooner rather than later.

My suggestion: start with street view. Add an ambient soundscape. Open it up to developers to create games and 3D reconstructions based on the archaeology of the city that people can enjoy on the interwebs. And then sell tickets to visit select areas of the site by lottery, with a drastically reduced number of visitors.

Sound harsh? Welcome to reality. If we're really thinking about conservation, we're planning for 1000 or 10,000 years. In most places, the only way to conserve a place for that long is reburial, with the occasional re-excavation as a special event. Technologies like street view are an incredible blessing for archaeology because they let excavators show off a permanent, 3D exhibition of their finds. And if you want to rebury the site, you can, while allowing the public to visit the spaces. If the recording is multi-spectral and high-resolution enough, you could do a lot of scholarship while the ruins sleep safely underground.


  1. I'd argue that reburying goes against about 200 basic human nature tenants & that conservation of ruins is one of the more absurd ideas i've heard. Recreation & transformation into theme parks, yes, but to have falling apart ruins to visit, while i'm sure it's nice, as long as they have been thoroughly documented, who cares if they fall apart? As we both know, ruins crop up in all sorts of places.

  2. I recently read a book* that suggested that we fetishize the authenticity of ruins as a replacement for God. (A source of truth, purity, mystic experience, etc.) I agree. Ruins are not God. They should be used for our present day needs, including entertainment. And of course, time passes, so new things become archaeological.

    But 'thorough documentation' is not so easy as it seems - especially since technology is changing so fast. I think it's better to archive (through reburial) large portions of sites like Pompeii so that we have a source of material to work from the science side in the future.

    I'd still love to see parts of sites like Pompeii re-roofed and turned into a more experiential environment. For instance, they should serve wine in some of those ancient bars that Steve Ellis has documented! (http://bit.ly/4Q5AsL and http://bit.ly/8WTTXx)

    *Charles Lindholm, _Culture and Authenticity_, Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

  3. I totally understand the desire to catalog every possible element of the past, it's very strong in me, but at the same time, spiritually there is a very diseased, materialistic element to this mentality. Hence the modern angle of ruins being a stand-in for god. No wonder people have such a hard time finding direction though you know?

  4. As an archaeologist with a past in game development, I agree that there can and should be more 3D site recreations. With the easy availability of open-source and/or free-to-use 3D engines and modeling tools, the cost comes down to the actual work of recording, modeling, and distributing the recreation. In many cases this cost would be far less than the cost of physically maintaining and preserving sites in the open air for tourists to walk through. I think this would be a great way for archaeologists to better share sites with the public while keeping the physical impact to a site to a minimum. Also, this would open up the experience of walking through a site to people who couldn't afford to travel there physically. Imagine an 8th grade classroom in Iowa taking a virtual walking tour through ancient Pompeii, or a reconstruction of their own hometown as it appeared every 50 years since it was founded.

  5. I think you have it backwards. Why not use 3d technology to compose a detailed record of the site, for archaeology etc;. Record all the data in a 3d record and once you've gleaned all you can off it; forgo the preservation and open it for tourism.

  6. Why not re-roof it so people can see what it was actually like? Or enclose it in a biosphere dome? Have a theater where people can see the 3D site creations, as well. If some parts, like the frescoes, really need to be closed off, then people could at least see them in the natural surroundings.

  7. Thanks all for the comments.

    @ RWillems: I like your idea, and I think that's the way archaeology will go - the only question is whether it'll be done by archaeologists or by entertainment companies (which is why archaeologists need to get involved!)

    @ Anonymous 1: Of course we should record the site in as much detail as possible. But stop for a minute and think about the time and cost required to record an entire city, wall by wall, with a laser scanner. There is also the fact that a lot of other kinds of studies - of the actual material itself - can also give us information. The material record is the heart of archaeology! We can't archive all of it but we must protect some.

    @Anonymous 2: I'd love to see more use of roofs and domes over sites myself, though I can hear certain of my colleagues gnashing their teeth already. The challenge is not to detract from the experience of the place with whatever intervention you decide on. And for a site the size of Pompeii (a whole city!), roofing the whole thing would be an astonishingly expensive proposition.