The Pompeii Principle

As promised earlier in the week, here is something a little different. Today’s post is about what may be the biggest cliché in archaeological media, comparing something to Pompeii. In the last few weeks alone I have seen three things compared to Pompeii. The first was the Roman site currently being excavated in central London, labelled “the Pompeii of the north”, which I have talked about before, then Coast (season 7 episode 6) compared an abandoned settlement in Ireland, and finally Timewatch: Atlantis labelled a site the Pompeii of the Aegean.

These are just some recent examples; it seems that any time an impressive site is found with some aspects of good preservation or rapid abandonment, it is compared to the Roman town. It is as if these sites themselves are not impressive enough, they must be associated with another well known site in order to boost their appeal and get attention from the public. So why is this comparison made so often?

The idea of referring back to Pompeii likely springs from what has come to be known as the ‘Pompeii Principle’. This is the idea that a site is an original context; something which has lain undisturbed by later action and events, and so represents a snap shot of what a place/society was like at that point in time, with none of the distortions/disturbance which archaeologists usually have to deal with. Any site like this would be a figurative gold mine of information. When people refer to Pompeii then, this idea is what they are referencing, although perhaps unknowingly.

The problem is that the idea of an original context does not hold up to scrutiny. This concept relies on everything remaining in its original context of use, but even defining this is impossible. If someone in the past cleans out a hearth or throws away a broken pot these things are no longer in their original context of use. These acts are still a part of that culture’s activities though, and when you start thinking about migratory groups the size of the problem grows. These actions are not distortions of the archaeological record, which must be reverse engineered to understand a culture, they are in fact fundamental parts of that culture. The only way that a site can adhere to this ‘Pompeii Principle’ is to be consigned to the archaeological record in one instant. As it turns out, the ‘Pompeii Principle’ does not even apply to Pompeii, as in actual fact it’s abandonment was a protracted process (See Allison, P. M. (1992) Artefact Assemblages: Not ‘the Pompeii Premise’ In Herring, E. Whitehouse, R. and Wilkins, J. (eds.) Papers of the Fourth Conference of Italian Archaeology London, Accordia Research Centre, 49-56 and Bon, S. E. (1997) A city Frozen in Time or a Site in Perpetual Motion? Formation Processes at Pompeii In Bon, S. E. and Jones, R. Sequence and Space in Pompeii Oxford, Oxbow Books pg 7-12)

So reporters, TV presenters and professional archaeologists are comparing sites to Pompeii, referring to the promise that this implies, when Pompeii itself doesn’t meet the standards of this mythical archaeological ideal. Perhaps we should just refer to sites on their own merits and create some new Pompeiis in the imagination of the public. Don’t get me wrong, I think that it is a fantastic site, but let’s spread the love, and let these fantastic sites around the world become known in their own right for the quality of their archaeology.

If you’ve enjoyed this foray into the world of archaeological theory please let me know in the comments and if it proves popular I will do some more of these in the future.


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