UO classics professor digs up the dirt on Pompeii

The ruins of Pompeii, with Mount Vesuvius in the background

Volcanos are a hot topic in Oregon.

But while most UO researchers are studying potentially active volcanoes, classics professor Kevin Dicus is working to unearth a more dormant aspect of the field: an ancient city buried by one of the most devastating eruptions in history.

In A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius unleashed a storm of ash, rocks and volcanic gases that rained millions of tons of debris onto the city of Pompeii. After getting bombarded by pyroclastic flows and volcanic surges for more than 24 hours, Pompeii appeared to be completely eliminated.

But beneath nearly 25 feet of soot and pumice, the remains of the city and the volcano’s victims stood perfectly preserved, protected from damaging air and moisture by the very debris that devastated the Italian city and its inhabitants.

The idea of studying this ancient city is not a novel concept. Explorers and archaeologists have been examining its abandoned buildings, artifacts and skeletons since Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748.

So how does a researcher like Dicus uncover new material at a site that’s been meticulously inspected for more than 250 years?

“We were inspired to look at ‘space’ differently,” said Dicus, who’s been fascinated by Pompeii since a weeklong lesson in third grade “blew him away”— pun intended.

“Most projects excavate spaces with predetermined notions about how that space should function, for example a ‘house.’ But even calling an area a ‘house’ before excavating it creates expectations that each room must correspond to some function of our modern definition of a house. It is important to be aware of how we apply contemporary concepts of function onto ancient materials and spaces.”

Instead of studying single structures, Dicus and a team of researchers with the University of Cincinnati and the American Academy in Rome decided to look at an entire neighborhood. By going in with no preconceived ideas about how specific spaces should function, these researchers were able to garner much more information about each building — and the people who lived there.

“It seems beyond a doubt that the properties functioned in so many more ways than just houses,” Dicus explained. “People unquestionably lived in these structures permanently, but some were also inns with stables for horses and mules, others had front entrances converted into commercial shops, and another looks to be a public restaurant.”

Dicus’ project also is unique in its focus on an underrepresented socioeconomic group in Pompeian scholarship: the nonelite. Most other recovery and research efforts have centered on the elites that flocked to Pompeii, a city known for hosting extravagant getaways for the wealthiest Italians.

“There was little separation between living and livelihood for this demographic. Where they slept at night also was where they worked and attempted to make a living,” Dicus said.

The revelation that many subelite Pompeiians enjoyed a zero-second commute to work is one of many discoveries that Dicus has helped uncover while supervising The Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabia for the last decade. His team of researchers has excavated two full blocks of Pompeian spaces trying to dig into how these properties were — or were not — interconnected and how this economic class helped shape the Roman urban network.

“We’ve learned that there was a remarkable linkage among the properties,” Dicus said. “For example, many of the properties engaged in manufacturing garum, an extremely popular fish sauce, at precisely the same time.”

They’ve also uncovered a lot of information about the societies that predated the Pompeian properties. These finds are among Dicus’ favorites.

“When you get to the point of the trench where the contexts date to 300 B.C. or earlier, before the houses were constructed around 150 B.C., then all bets are off about what you may find,” said Dicus, as he recalled discovering rarities like semiprecious gemstones with intricate carvings of faces and deities and ceramic pieces imprinted with potters’ fingerprints from 2,000 years ago.

To uncover all of this buried archaeological treasure is a grueling, and extremely careful, process.

“Simply digging down to find things would be a disaster,” Dicus said.

One of the biggest challenges is trying to understand 600 years of occupation buried in six to seven feet of soil, with many artifacts from different eras overlapping within the same building.

“With the different phases of activity so compact, and so busy, keeping track of what goes where requires intense focus, sound digging methods and extremely rigorous record keeping,” Dicus said. “At the end of the season, I can’t go back to the trench to double check the work — it’s all been removed.”

Dicus is currently writing a four-volume excavation report to provide a narrative for the 40 trenches and the nearly 6,000 “stratigraphic units” — or contextual discoveries —they’ve excavated since 2005.

Organizing and explaining thousands of records is obviously time-consuming work, but Dicus managed to find a few spare minutes to provide expert commentary for an upcoming documentary about Pompeii that’s set to air on the Smithsonian Channel on Aug. 8th.

Dicus won’t actually get to watch “Pompeii: The Dead Speaks” on the night that it airs, but he’s got a good excuse for missing the show. He’s spending August in the Tolfa Mountains of central Italy, where he completed his dissertation on rural sanctuaries while he was a doctoral student at the University of Michigan.

This time, he’s bringing UO students with him to the small, mountaintop town to get a hands-on education in archaeological fieldwork. The group will be excavating Etruscan and Roman ruins, while Dicus also explores the possibility of securing a future site to investigate an unexcavated temple that he believes is waiting to be discovered.

“I am just as excited as the students,” said Dicus, who hopes to return to Pompeii and other regions in Italy with more UO students in the future. “It is important to train students, and I want our UO students to be able to come to Italy and excavate. It’s a challenging but incredibly rewarding experience.”

If Dicus has his way, he’ll get to teach many more Ducks just how much — and how — he digs Pompeii.

—By Emily Halnon, University Communications