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Digging Deep Into Pompeii's Past

Assistant Professor Michael Anderson on Pompeii dig (left); ancient villa near dig (right)


THE MARKS that SF State's archeology team unearthed in Pompeii last summer looked so fresh you could almost believe the laborer who left them had just gone for lunch. Instead, the swipes of his pickaxe date to one of the most famous disasters in history -- the first-century eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that entombed the ancient Italian city in an avalanche of ash.

After centuries of excavation, eruption-era finds have grown ever rarer, says Michael Anderson (above, left), a Cambridge-educated archeologist who has been exploring Pompeii for the past 15 years. He opened SF State's field research school at the World Heritage site in 2007 shortly after joining the faculty. One year later, the assistant professor's team uncovered a trench beneath two ancient shops on one of Pompeii's main thoroughfares. A bigger "a-ha" moment followed last summer when analysis indicated the trench -- which was likely being dug for drainage -- was an active construction site at the time of the eruption.

It was like opening a window in time, Anderson says. The trench was filled with the remains of the ditch diggers' dirt piles that apparently slid down as Vesuvius' fury wracked the earth. Below, volcanic stones lay preserved in the angle that they rained through open doors and windows nearly 2,000 years ago.

Photo of archaeologist carefully removes a layer of soil"We were standing at the same spot they were probably working in when they said, 'Hmm, what's this coming from the sky?'" Anderson says. "We kept thinking we were going to find a dead person at the bottom."

The discovery provided an electric connection across millennia, but it also shed light on Pompeii's status on the eve of its destruction. Archeologists once believed the Roman city was snuffed out in full glory. Others later claimed the doomed municipality was largely abandoned after a powerful earthquake in 62 A.D.

But finding an active drainage project bolsters a third argument that Pompeii was at least vibrant enough to try to recover from the earlier disaster, Anderson says.

The SF State team expects to test the theory further this summer by uncovering more of the trench. They are also using GPS-computer surveying to create 3-D maps of the structures. The computer models will not only help more scientists study the area, they will give future generations an insight they may not other­wise get as tourists and the elements are rapidly eroding the ruins.

"I knew we had struck gold when we hired Anderson," says Humanities Dean Paul Sherwin. "His massive endeavors at Pompeii are putting the Classics Department and San Francisco State University on the international academic map."


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