Albrecht Matthaei fell in love with Pompeii. Now he works to preserve it.
A Path to Progress
Unabashedly enthusiastic about the ancient city, the German archaeologist fights environmental threats and structural collapses that threaten this historical jewel.
Pompeii, Italy — As archaeologist Albrecht Matthaei maneuvers his way through the necropolis of Porta Nocera – the ancient burial ground just outside the city walls of Pompeii – there is hardly a monument that he passes by that he doesn’t know something about or hasn’t played some role in helping to preserve.
Dr. Matthaei is unabashedly enthusiastic about the ancient city. “Everybody knows Pompeii,” he says. “It is a critical part of Western cultural history and therefore [of interest to] the whole world.”
His primary objective is to ensure that Pompeii will be around to benefit future generations. And that means a fight against the ever-present environmental threats and structural collapses that threaten this historical jewel.
Matthaei is coordinator of the Pompeii Sustainable Preservation Project (PSPP), a German-based initiative begun in 2012 as a partnership between Matthaei and Dr. Ralf Kilian at the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics in Valley, Germany, just south of Munich. The project, which involves 10 leading European research institutions, is based at the Fraunhofer IBP.
While the PSPP’s staff size is modest, its goals are ambitious. It aims to not only preserve the famous ruins at Pompeii but to gain new insights into the ancient city. The project also seeks to train young conservators and archaeologists.
For Matthaei and Dr. Kilian, Pompeii is personal. The duo met there more than a decade ago as graduate students on an excavation project.
“It was kind of love at first sight,” says Matthaei of Pompeii, chuckling, during a conversation in a restaurant across the street from the ruins. Between sips of coffee, he recalls meandering with Kilian through the massive site – nearly 160 acres with some 1,500 structures – and realizing that, at the time, no major restoration projects were taking place.
“There was a lot of work to do, and we thought that would be the perfect place for students to work,” Matthaei says. “You can bring students there, they can learn, and while learning they can do something.”
Thought to have been founded in the 7th or 6th century BC, Pompeii had a population of roughly 11,000 by AD 79 and boasted amenities such as a public water system, amphitheater, and port. The city was largely destroyed that year when Mt. Vesuvius, an active volcano, erupted, leaving Pompeii, the nearby town of Herculaneum, and surrounding villas buried under 13 to 20 feet of ash and pumice.
Pompeii was lost to view for 1,500 years until its rediscovery in 1599. It has since been a source of fascination, owing in large part to its extraordinary preservation while buried in ash. It now provides an unprecedented perspective on life as it was 2,000 years ago.
“Here you can visit [an ancient] Roman city,” Matthaei says. “For the restoration and conservation sciences, it is a unique city.”
UNESCO, a United Nations agency that seeks to preserve the world’s most important cultural assets, named Pompeii a World Heritage Site in 1997. But the marvel has long struggled with lack of funding, the negative effects of tourism, inadequate drainage, and a series of collapses of some of its structures. The most notable occurred in November 2010 with the collapse of the Schola Armaturarum, a stone building that featured beautiful frescoes of gladiators.
The collapse received international news coverage, and increased attention was paid to the management of the site amid concerns that more historical structures could be lost.
Last year UNESCO found that initiatives such as the Great Pompeii Project have begun to turn things around. The European Union-funded effort has benefited the site in many ways; for example, six newly restored homes were opened to the public in December. “The mission considered that there is no longer any reason to place the property on the World Heritage in Danger List,” says Anna Sidorenko, UNESCO World Heritage Center program specialist.
Despite the progress, significant work remains for scholars like Matthaei – particularly related to mitigating environmental hazards.
The PSPP has focused on the necropolis, which includes some 73 funerary monuments of varying designs. Walking through the site, Matthaei points out monuments that bear clear signs of damage from water, both rain and groundwater, made more severe because of the low elevation of the necropolis compared with that of the city of Pompeii itself.
The threat posed by moisture is among the most significant for the ancient burial ground. And it has prompted one of the PSPP’s pioneering efforts – constructing shelter roofs to protect the monuments.
The PSPP has designed a modular roofing system that would be earthquake-resistant and could be customized to cover a single or multiple monuments. The roofs would also not require maintenance, a critical element when considering the future of the site. “You always have to think – if I am away, will this thing work on its own?” Matthaei says.
The necropolis is hardly the first destination for the some 2.5 million people who visit the ancient city annually. On a recent Saturday afternoon the scarcity of visitors created a serene, almost contemplative environment there. However, Matthaei says that the necropolis offers a unique glimpse of Roman burial culture and social structure.
The PSPP’s first campaign, in 2014, focused on documenting the condition of each monument and identifying those in dire need of restoration, along with building a 3-D model of the site and investigating past restoration efforts.
Last year, the project’s second campaign featured an eight-week summer academy for restorers involving nine participants from four countries. It targeted graduate students and offered lectures, training, and experience working on the monuments.
The PSPP is also developing special materials to conserve the ruins. One such material, light and foam-based, can be used to fill the gaps between the ancient plaster and walls in some of the structures. The research has also focused on better understanding microbiological deterioration unique to the environment in Pompeii.
The PSPP is planned as a decade-long, €10 million ($11.1 million) project with a number of phases. “We are still looking for other funding,” Matthaei says, adding that increased support would allow for full-time restorers and researchers.
Matthaei’s organization works with the supervision and support of Italian authorities – particularly the Pompeii park’s superintendent, Massimo Osanna, who was appointed in 2014.
“It has been a very good collaboration from the start,” says Matthaei, adding that Dr. Osanna has taken an active role.
Under Osanna, Pompeii is restoring structures, digitizing records, and opening new exhibitions. “Pompeii is on the way to be[ing] ... a model of a well-kept archaeological park,” Matthaei says.
Research institutions and projects like the PSPP play a pivotal role in advancing restoration and preservation efforts at Pompeii, Osanna says. “These collaborations of specialists from other institutions and universities are critical to the research because they ensure an interdisciplinary approach that allows us to know more about the history of Pompeii from different aspects and points of view – botanical, chemical, anthropological, architectural, and so on.”
Matthaei has another objective as well. “We wanted to see if it is possible to do fundraising for [the] restoration and preservation of world heritage [sites],” he says.
“We want to try it, and to see if society is ready to do something.”
• Learn more at www.pompeii-pspp.org.
How to take action
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