The Apolline Project – Illuminating the Dark Side of Vesuvius

E_Johnston_ID_PhotoGuest blogger and Bristol PhD student Emma Johnston combined her passion for archaeology and volcanology during her summer months working on the Apolline Project, Italy. Here she tells us about her experience of excavating a Roman bathhouse on the northern slope of Vesuvius.

The crater at Vesuvius

We have all heard about Pompeii and Herculaneum, but the award-winning Apolline Project, directed by Girolamo Ferdinando de Simone (University of Oxford), focuses on much less-known settlements and smaller sites on the ‘dark’, or northern, side of Mt. Vesuvius.

The Apolline Project was set up in 2004 to i) study the impact of the eruptions of Vesuvius on the Campania region during Late Antiquity, ii) investigate how the landscape recovered after the AD 79 and AD 472 eruptions, and iii) to examine the impact of the eruptions products on buildings. Last year, I was fortunate enough to be offered a place on this multidisciplinary archaeological and volcanological research adventure. The site, in the Italian village of Pollena Trocchia, is a Roman bathhouse (now thought to be part of a larger villa complex), that was buried by volcaniclastic deposits belonging to the AD 472 and AD 505-512 eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius.

The Roman bathhouse

Very little is known about these eruptions and their impacts, primarily because they occurred during a period of deep crisis in Campania. The AD 472 eruption occurred during a critical period in the fall of the Western Roman Empire (largely as the result of barbarian incursions). In addition, the region around the volcano was not densely populated due to the disruption caused by the earlier AD 79 eruption, and there was significant political upheaval related to the fall of the Roman Empire. Therefore, it is necessary to rely on integrated archaeological and volcanological study to shed light on these eruptions and their impacts.

Some examples of the types of finds the Apolline project is revealing (clockwise from top left: coins; carbonised leaves; mosaic floors; close up of tesserae used in the mosaics).

To date, excavation has yielded some interesting finds, such as coins, frescoes and glassware. Dateable brickstamps reveal that the site was occupied within around 20 years of the AD 79 eruption, suggesting that although the event completely devastated the southern regions, life was able to continue in the north. In volcanological terms, the seasonal timing of the AD 472 eruption in combination with loose pyroclastic material from the volcano slopes, produced lahars and reworked deposits which spread across the surrounding alluvial plains. The result was water-saturated debris flows that led to the burial of nearby towns such as Nola, Taurano and Pollena. At the bathhouse, the main effects appears to have been the infilling and burial by these reworked pyroclastic flows. Although the flows do not appear to have been particularly destructive, they caused further damage to an already weakened and neglected structure, and brought a phase of human occupation to an end.

There is very little evidence to suggest extensive re-habitation of the region for a long time after the AD 472 eruption implying a profound historical decline of the area. The lack of historical documents and archaeological finds from the 6th to 10th Century strongly suggests that the AD 472 eruption, which was followed by the AD 505-512 eruption (and once again burial under secondary debris flows), and later the Gothic-Byzantine war (AD 535-553), discouraged further re-settlement significantly accelerating the deterioration of the local society in Campania.

The bathhouse has been infilled by secondary flows. Large clasts incorporated into the deposits (right hand side of image) attest to the strength of the flows.

Excavations such as this are often underpinned by the hard work of paying volunteers, but they also depend heavily on enthusiasm and the involvement of the community. This is something which the Apolline Project has striven to combine, frequently holding community open days, and offering skills and knowledge to the trainee excavators. The project is still ongoing and is set to continue revealing interesting and important results. 3067_395160320541357_1250990554_n

More information on the project, and how to participate in future seasons, can be found here:

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About Charly Stamper

I’m an ex-experimental petrologist.
I used to make pretend volcanoes; now I work in renewable energy

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