Thursday, February 07, 2013

Pompeii: Shoddy restoration, organized crime

EU steps in to protect Pompeii from shoddy restoration, organized crime

By Claudio Lavanga, Correspondent, NBC News

On Tuesday evening, the sound of a pneumatic drill broke the silence that has been part of Pompeii's character since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the city in 79 A.D. Three workers cut holes in one of the city's historic walls, attached mounts with concrete and fixed a Plexiglas cover to protect 2,000-year-old graffiti.

"Sorry we don't have hard hats on," the men said, as if not following safety standards was the only thing wrong with their supposed preservation work. In fact, according to experts, the workmen were defacing priceless antiquities. "Oh my god, look at them. Do you see an archaeologist around?" said Dario Sautto, a member of Italy's Cultural Heritage Observatory who witnessed the work.

In Pompeii, it's a race against time to preserve what's left of this ancient site, before it becomes history. NBC News Correspondent Claudio Lavanga reports. As is so often the case with the preservation of Pompeii, the cure appears to be worse than the disease, he said. "Those men are bricklayers, without a qualified supervisor in sight," he added. "They are just patching things up ahead of the visit of the [European Union] commissioner."

Indeed, on Wednesday, Johannes Hahn, regional affairs commissioner for the European Union (EU), was surveying Pompeii and discussing  the start of the Great Pompeii Project, a multimillion-dollar plan to revamp and secure the decaying archaeological site -- and stop patch-up jobs like the one Sautto had just witnessed.

Pompeii ... for decades it has symbolized the failings of the Italian state in preserving its rich historical, cultural and archaeological heritage. In 2010, one stone too many crumbled -- the famous House of Gladiators, used for training before fights in the nearby amphitheater, collapsed into a pile of rubble. The world's archaeological community cringed, and so did the EU.

So the EU pledged to spend 105 million euros (about $142 million) to make sure that interventions like the one witnessed Tuesday become a thing of the past. The project consists of "using some of the most sophisticated and up-to-date technology to preserve the ruins of the site, which has been badly damaged in recent years," the EU said Tuesday.


On Tuesday, Annamaria Caccavo, a businesswoman who won a multimillion-dollar restoration tender to work on Pompeii, was placed under house arrest on charges of aiding abuse of office, corrupting a public official and fraud. Caccavo's arrest, which came a day before the EU officially stepped in to straighten up the ruins' management, sent a signal that legality and transparency will play a major role in the new regime.


The EU's Hahn said he took more than a professional interest in helping ensure the protection of Pompeii's treasures.

"I have taken a great personal interest in getting this project off the ground ever since I heard about the collapse of the House of the Gladiators in November 2010, when I happened to be in Rome," he said. "Here is a chance not just to help save something which is part of Europe's cultural identity but to revitalize (the regional) economy by attracting more visitors and creating new jobs."



The EU has now recognized that the Italian Government has failed to meet its responsibilities for protecting and caring for Pompeii, one of the world's most important archaeological treasures. In one sense this is a very good thing because Italy clearly cannot cope with the challenge. Now the EU will attempt to intervene decisively and rescue the decaying ruins.

In another sense this is a potentially dangerous development, since in doing so the EU has now committed its resources and prestige to sustaining the doctrine that mandatory State custody of archaeological monuments and portable antiquities is the best approach to preserve them and advance the interests of the public in their curation, restoration and study.

While no one on either side of the public vs. private custody debate really desires to see major sites such as Pompeii "privatized," it cannot be denied that the facts tend to demonstrate that public custody is in significant ways still an unsolved problem. Good intentions abound amongst Italian archaeologists and museum curators, together with willingness to sacrifice personal interests in favor of the public good. What is lacking is evidence that good intentions and unselfish dedication suffice to ensure success.

It would be a very good thing to begin the EU's intervention with an objective and realistic appraisal of the challenge, an appraisal which does not presume that any particular preservation and curation approach is sacrosanct and which instead seeks to determine the objectively best solution. Such an appraisal is really the only sensible way to proceed.

I do not expect anything like this to happen, because the "archaeology lobby" is inflexibly committed to the doctrine of state custody and may be expected to vehemently oppose all attempts to objectively reexamine the subject. So long as this body of opinion continues to dominate public policy regarding antiquities, that policy will continue to be determined by ideology and dogma rather than by objectivity and common sense.