Roman villa rots while recriminations fly over restoration

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The Independent Online

One of archaeology's most exciting finds is decaying, open to the elements and in a crisis of disrepair, as experts point the finger at each other over responsibility for its upkeep.

One of archaeology's most exciting finds is decaying, open to the elements and in a crisis of disrepair, as experts point the finger at each other over responsibility for its upkeep.

The Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum was buried in AD79 by the same eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii. Already the largest Roman villa ever discovered, excavations in the 1990s found that it has several levels, making it even more important than previously thought.

The villa, near Naples, was almost certainly a seaside retreat for Calpurnius Piso, Julius Caesar's father-in-law. When first excavated in the 18th century, it caused particular excitement with the discovery of about 1,800 papyri, mainly works in Greek by the Epicurean writer Philodemus. Many believe that more papyri are still buried with the rest of the villa.

However, the site lies in a horrific state of decay. Mosaics lie covered with leaves and rotting debris. Tiles are scattered on the ground. Exposed frescoes are fading and peeling. Pigeons fly through buildings despite patchy chicken wire on the windows. Rubbish lies strewn about the site.

Critics also point out that excavation work seems to have been done with mechanical diggers, and that cement that is corrosive to ancient structures has been used.

A plastic roof, put up to protect the main section of the villa, already has holes in it. Water has leaked through it, causing holes in otherwise intact mosaics. Concrete blocks that support the roof stand on top of mosaics and have broken some sections. Some parts of the excavations are protected only by plastic sheeting.

Props, shelters and damp protection are desperately needed at the site at Herculaneum, says an official working there. But it is disputed as to where the blame lies for the derelict state of the site.

Professor Pietro Giovanni Guzzo heads the Soprintendenza that manages the site. The heritage body contracted out the excavations in the 1990s to a company then called Infratecna. These were abandoned in 1998 when funds ran out. The Soprintendenza has condemned the way the excavations, which cost £10m, were carried out. In a report in May it said the work was carried out "without any prior feasibility study and without a conservation programme in place for the Soprintendenza".

Records handed over by the excavators, says Professor Guzzo, have been "very partial". However, Antonio De Simone, who was in charge of the excavations for Infratecna, claims that he provided standard documentation.

Mr De Simone, in turn, has criticised the Soprintendenza for not maintaining the water pumps. The site has suffered from flooding. A trench was sunk well below the water table and, when the pumps failed, it filled with water several metres deep. The water stood for several months and was only drained by new pumps in April this year.

Even as what has been unearthed of the villa crumbles, the future of the site is in question. Should more of it be excavated or not? Classicists, convinced that there are still more papyri buried with the villa, and anticipating that texts lost since the first century might be among them, are pushing for further excavations.

But the site lies under modern day Ercolano, a populous suburb of Naples. Two roads cut across the site. The town hall and a school would have to be pulled down to make way for a excavation site which would stretch over three hectares.

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, the director of the British School at Rome, heads an international committee responsible for the Herculaneum project. He argues that the best way to preserve the rest of the villa is not to excavate.

He said: "You can invent the most sophisticated bomb shelters in the world and you cannot possibly get better than this. You have got to have a really good reason to excavate, and you have got to factor in conservation."

While the two-millennia-old villa rots quietly in the Bay of Naples, a replica in Malibu, California, enjoys better treatment. Built by John Paul Getty in the 1970s to house his museum and using plans drafted in the 18th century, it comes complete with Doric columns, bronze statues and neat box hedges. It is being renovated a mere 30 years into its lifetime.