Our Man in Pompeii : The Dust, the Heat, The Football

[Unfortunately due to comms and other issues, Our Man was unable to post his reports on the actual day in question for the latter part of his trip.  His reports are offered here, retrospectively,  for the sake of completion, the historical record and those who can’t sleep at night.]


Pompeii:  Tuesday 2nd July

As I may have mentioned, 0600 hours is not a time that I’m particularly familiar with.

The alarm clock goes off at 0600 and within moments I remember why I try and avoid this time of day.  Still, there’s a job to be done.

As I a grab what I know will be one of three showers today – it’s the heat, the damn heat – I remember that Agent C finally made it late last night.  Clearly an Agent that likes to do things the hard way, she declined the option of a taxi down from Naples and instead went native and took the bus and the train.  I remembered to get on the comms and warn her:

“Pompeii’s tricksy.  There’s two stations.  Avoid the Scavi one!”

She clearly understood the message as there she was at 2215  at the right station.  A quick nod of introduction and then I led her to the safe house and briefed her on the situation.  There was just time for a pizza – there’s always time for pizza here – before turning in.

By 0645 I’m rushing breakfast and throwing boiled eggs in to my bag again.

Then the comms crackles into life and I have a message from Agent C. She’s been struck down by a travel bug and will meet us on site later.

I break the news to Agent Chester when I meet her at the corner of San Guiseppe and Via Sacra.  Our first days seem cursed we muse.

At 0730 hours we’re in Reg.VII Ins. XIV – Civic IX if you want the exact co-ords.  Pompeii is divided in to nine large regions (regio). Each region is sub-divided in to Insulae.  These are areas bounded by roads and streets.  If you’re from the Bronx, a ‘block’.  Finally, each building in a particular Insula is given a number. Some of the Insulae, likes ours, have many buildings.  Others just contain one enormous town house belonging to a city big-wig.

I hadn’t realised that the Italian’s have such a strong work ethic.  No cups of tea and chat before starting on this site!  Grande E gives the orders and the buckets and shovels with stupidly long handles are handed out.

It’s a job with a time limit.  We have 90 minutes before the public arrive.  And the goal?  To move as much backfill from Civic IX to Civic III.  I remark that we’re moving one bit of Pompeii to another bit of Pompeii but no one’s amused.

All this dirt here…

A lot of volcanic dust

and here…

The civic on the left… tool shed on right (not Roman).

has to go here.

Glamourous work but someone has to do it

An attempt to sort a human chain fails hopelessly so instead we grab two buckets each, wait for them to be filled and then take them to be tipped… again and again and again.

There is dust everywhere that sticks to your suncream smothered face and arms and we’re all in long trousers and steelies in the heat… the damn heat.  At 0900 on the dot, the call comes to halt and clear up.

Agent’s Chester’s team are split up and sent to their jobs.  They’re on this mission for four weeks.  There’s Wall Drawing, Pottery, Frescos and Digging.  I’m sent to accompany Agent Chester on digging.

“So for the next six hours you need to draw every stone in this wall”

The Civic I’m in is about the size of two Tesco parking bays and in one corner, a room about the size of a hotel ensuite that only has a shower.  Timothy and Daniel are in charge of this excavation –  apparently it’s a shop or workshop. Daniel gives us the brief:

“The square section to the right is the original AD79 floor surface.  Please don’t stand on it.  All these coloured pins mark points or objects of interest.  Like that pile of nails over there.  The bits of cardboard box are where you can stand – we do move them.  We need to make a start on that little alcove but first it needs the C19th backfill removing – that’s your job whilst we finish recording yesterday’s work – as you know, yesterday’s mission was terminated because of the heat – the damn heat!”

AD79 floor on right (the little bit), alcove left, unsafe wall in middle. Area not to tread on to front.

We get set up.  Ophelia from Agent Chester’s team volunteers to grab the shovel with the stupidly long handle and start removing the C19th century in to a bucket.  She passes this over the wall to Agent Chester.  Agent Chester passes it over the wall to me, to empty in to neat pile on a tarp that we’re creating in the next Civic.  The dirt moving at the start of the day makes more sense now.

The system’s good and we crack on whilst Daniel and Timothy bag, and record everything from yesterday whilst fending off the public.  People call this the zoo.  We’re caged in as an endless stream of visitors walk by, stop and take photos of us and ask questions from the profound to the inane.

“Have you found anything interesting today?” asks an American gentleman.

“Sure.  We’ve just found a gold coin!”

“Really?” says the man, very excitedly.

“No.  Just kidding,” says Daniel.  “Got some nails though?”

At the break at 1030 hours I ask Daniel and Timothy what the stupidest question they’ve been asked is.

“We were once asked if we were actors and not real archaeologists.”

I respect these guys.  They’re trying to concentrate and understand a complex and evolving stratification that needs constant re-evaluation with every scrape of the trowel.  And their concentration is always being interrupted by questions from the public and cameras shoved in their faces.  Yet they meet it all with good humour, patience and professionalism.

A real archaeologist. Note hat and carboard stepping stones.  He knows all about the Matrix.

Every now and then Grande E stops by.  She casts her professorial eye over the work and talks with Daniel and Timothy about The Matrix. The Matrix.  Sounds interesting.

Grande E tries to get levels between tourists

Soon after the break, Daniel crosses the cardboard stepping stones to have a look at the alcove we’ve been clearing.  I try to peer around the partition wall to see and hold on to it for support.

The volcanic block in the wall that my hand is holding decides, after 2000 years, to separate from its partners.  Suddenly I’m off balance and pitching forward toward the carefully laid out multi coloured pins of the pre AD79 surface.

Then I feel a hand on my arm as Agent Chester pulls me back to safety.

“Try not to go breaking Pompeii as well!” she says with a smile.

And I know, at the other side of the cage, someone is bound to have caught that moment on their video camera.

Daniel decides the enclosure is ready for a trowel clean.

“Who’s got the least experience of trowel work?”

All trowels (including mine) point in my direction.

“Ok, that’s sorted.  Agent D – Timothy will run you through the Matrix.”

I could tell you about the Pompeii Matrix – but then I’d have to kill you.

Qualified trowel

We retreat to the interior of the Insula at 1300 for lunch and seek shade away from the public gaze.  Every looks dusty and shattered.  There is very little talk but I sense there is disastisfaction in some quarters.

I briefly mention “Operation Jericho” to them, but no-one seems too interested at the moment.  Clearly I’ll have to scrape away at them slowly, like Daniel with his trowel.

During lunch Agent C turns up and reacquaints herself with some of the people she’s known from other missions.  Agent Chester is very pleased to see her and informs us both that Grande E wants to take use ‘backstage’ for the afternoon.

‘Backstage’.  Sounds interesting.

Just after 1400 and Agent C and I are accompanying Grande E through the crowds that throng in Pompeii’s ruined streets.

Grande E seems to know everything about this place.  I take the opportunity to ask Grande E about the cats.  There’s a rumour on the street that they’ve never found any feline remains in Pompeii because the cats sensed disaster was coming and moved out.  She smiles.

“Oh we have cats.  No casts of cats.  But we have cat bones in the zoo lab.  Maybe I can pull some strings and let you get a look at them.”  So, as I thought, a rumour.

Somewhere near the Porta di Stabia, Grande E opens one of the many barred gates you see around here and we enter in to the unexcavated area of Regio I.  We climb some steps roughly cut in to a bank that I realise shows the depth of excavation, to see a steel girdered building at least the size of a large Tesco-Extra and about as ugly.

Inside we meet Mike.  He’s the head-honcho in this building so Grande E hands over the briefing to him.  Most of the space inside is taken up with wall to ceiling shelving and it’s stacked with plastic trays, about 18″ x 24″, all carefully marked in some weird code.  Each tray is packed with resealable plastic bags, all coded, and in each one, a fragment of pottery.

Mike gives the tour and explains that they’re still going through 2016.  It makes me feel better about our molehill finds.  He shows us some highlights – for me, the beautiful, deep black Etruscan ware; for Agent C, the shelves of amphora.

As we tour we come across the Agent Chester’s pottery group.  They’re sat on the floor in a small circle between shelves.

“They’re getting a feel for the pottery,” explains Mike, as we exchange brief greetings.

By another tray he shows us a bag of maybe a hundred shallow, circular items, about 1.5″ in diameter.

“We’ve got thousands of these.  We don’t know what they are.  They look a bit like lids but to what?  There weren’t any pots found with them.”

So this place still holds many mysteries.

We finish the tour, once more overwhelmed by Pompeii.  Grande E leads us back out in to the heat and the streets and we pick our way through the visitors crowded in the Forum towards the west end Regio VII.  This part of the town faces towards the sea, and there’s as a welcome breeze as Grande E opens another locked gate.

Unlike the Pottery Lab, that’s in a modern building on a part of Pompeii that has never been excavated and that lies safely buried a dozen metres below the ground, the Fresco Lab is housed carefully amongst the ruins.  With the shade and sea breeze, I can see why the Fresco placement is the one most sought after by Agent C’s group – it’s not all about the Frescos.

Serena welcomes us with a broad smile.  The Frescos of Pompeii and Herculaneum have to be one the archaeological treasures that the world still has.  I’ve already been staggered by them as I’ve explored the city.


And wouldn’t you be?

In this special place they restore the ones that have been damaged by the elements, the passing of the years and the Allied bombs in 1943; and they take the fragments that have found over the years on floors all over the town, clean them and try to put them back together. An almost impossible jigsaw puzzle.

The colours on the restored works are alive and vivid.  I’m used to the the reds, the yellows and the blacks – but the blues and the turquoise jump out and hit you like the colour of the Med on a perfect morning.

I ask Serena about the authenticity of the colours on the restored pieces.  She smiles knowingly as if she’d expected the question.

“Oh very authentic.  We’re using the pigments that were found in the ‘House of the Painters at Work’.”

There’s a perfect and beautiful circularity in this that deeply appeals to me as an artist.  To take the very pigments those Fresco painters abandoned in AD 79 when the job – quite literally – got too hot; and use them to restore the original Frescos, that they might have even worked on, is neat.  Very neat.

Serena fires up her laptop to show us and Grande E what she’s working on.  She explains there’s no digital record of all the Frescos at Pompeii or the condition they’re in.  She’s made it her mission to build up a digital archive and Agent Chester’s group are on the case.  It’s another unexpected similarity with Epiacum that I need to report back to Big E.  Here they’re checking the state of wall art… back home it’s the state of ramparts.

By the time our tour has finished the working day is over.  Agent C wants to see more of this town, so as our colleagues head home to wash the dust and the heat from their bodies, we brave the tourists to check out more of the place.

Agent C carefully checks if the coast is clear in the Forum

By 1730 hours, I’m beat.  I tell Agent C I need to head back to thse safe house for a shower and some rest – afterall, there’s a match tonight.  She decides to stay in town – I remind her that it’s easy to get locked in.

Back at the safe house I realise how much volcanic dust I’ve picked up during the day.  The shower is great, but on the terrace the heat – the damn heat – is relentless.

I make it to the inevitable ‘British Pub’ to watch the match.  The bar staff are all Italian with only slightly more English than I have Italina.  But I can order a drink – I can always order a drink.

Agent Chesters gang turn up and we’re all one big team watching England.  You all know the result.

I break a wine glass.  The reputation continues.




Many individuals and organisations are involved with the management of Epiacum. We would particularly like to thank the following: Heritage Lottery Fund, North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Partnership, Historic England, and Natural England