Conservation in the Shadow of Vesuvius

The visitor to the ancient Roman sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum can easily recapture the drama of their destruction when Vesuvius erupted in a.d. 79. But, unknowingly, he or she is also witnessing a second, slower, but no less devastating destruction. For everything that is most precious about these extraordinary sites, and which does most to evoke a past world—the delicate frescoes on the walls, the wooden beds and shutters—is also most subject to decay. Gradually, inexorably, the sites are disintegrating. It is a long process that stretches back some two and a half centuries, set in motion when the first excavations brought to light the remains of the ancient cities in the late 1740s. If we could view a high-speed film of the sites taken over several years, we would be horrified to see just how much crumbles and disappears, day by day.

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