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.