Uncovering the Past

So how did a centuries-old, prosperous, beautiful city get buried not just by ash but by forgetfulness? It’s likely that Pompeii was lost in the cultural shift from Roman values and ideals to Christian ones in the Western world. It disappeared geographically, but also became socially unintelligible as the centuries wore on. This was a world before Christian morals dominated the West, and where the line between public and private was often hard to find. Pompeii largely disappeared from history until 1594, when the architect Domenico Fontana stumbled on its ruins while in the process of digging a canal. Excavations of the city didn’t begin in earnest until 1748, under the Bourbon King Charles VII. The work done at Pompeii and Herculaneum from the mid-18th century onward marked the beginning of the modern science of archaeology. In those early decades, the most spectacular artifacts—including stunning mosaics and the like—ended up decorating King Charles’ palace. Most were later moved to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, where they remain today. Today, the excavation of Pompeii has been going on for almost three centuries, and scholars and tourists remain just as fascinated by the city’s eerie ruins as they were in the 18th century.

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