Professor, students dig for Pompeii's secrets

Summer in Italy? Few would pass it up, but Assistant Professor of Classics Michael Anderson and his colleagues aren't sipping Chianti or touring the countryside. Instead, they are spending their time digging in the hot sun to uncover secrets of an iconic city destroyed nearly two millennia ago.

A photo of SF State Assistant Professor of Classics Michael Anderson in Pompeii, Italy.

SF State Assistant Professor of Classics Michael Anderson has excavated in Pompeii for more than a decade.

Anderson and 12 colleagues -- including four SF State students and two alumni -- are wrapping up a monthlong project in the Italian city of Pompeii. They are excavating ancient ruins and learning more about the settlement that was destroyed and buried when the nearby volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. The SF State Pompeii Archaeological School coordinates the project annually in partnership with the Via Consolare Project. Anderson coordinates, leads, and directs both the SF State field school and the Project, and has excavated at the site for more than a decade.

Since 2005, the Via Consolare Project has excavated parts of Pompeii along the Via Consolare, an important road in the ancient city. The project's aim is to better understand Pompeii's development, urban layout and urban and suburban environment from the city's founding until its destruction. The project received a small grant from SF State's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs as well as grants from other universities with faculty involved in the project but is primarily self-funded, with Anderson, his colleagues and students paying for their travel out of pocket.



A photo of SF State graduate student Megan Bresnahan in Pompeii, Italy.

SF State graduate student Megan Bresnahan excavates as part of the Via Consolare Project in Pompeii, Italy.

This summer, Anderson and his colleagues are digging in a city block just northwest of the forum, the center of the city, in an area containing a wall thought to be among the oldest preserved walls in the city. The team has cleared debris from bombings during World War II to uncover well-preserved floors from around the time of the eruption that have been unrecorded until now, Anderson said. Digging below these floors, the team has found evidence of previously unknown phases of houses, including large amounts of wall-plaster, pottery and considerable amounts of imported marble.

Many excavators believed there was nothing buried beneath the rubble and earth, Anderson said, but "we've been able to find a lot of amazing stuff."



A photo of five students working at an excavation site in Pompeii, Italy.

SF State alumna Molly Laitinen (left), graduate student Megan Bresnahan (center, in back) and alumna Caitlin Callahan (second from right) are among several students participating in the Via Consolare Project in Pompeii, Italy.

The work combines tried-and-true excavation techniques with those that take advantage of today's technologies. Soils, for example, are removed and examined the old-fashioned way: with trowels. Then each layer of excavation is recorded by taking a 3D image with a digital camera.

"The team makes use of a variety of traditional and cutting-edge methods," Anderson said.

Since 2007, the program has provided students from SF State and other colleges and universities across the U.S., the U.K. and Australia with the opportunity to get hands-on experience at an archeological site. And unlike larger archaeological internships, Via Consolare's smaller size allows students to dig into all aspects of the project.

"There's a much finer grain of education," Anderson said. "The students are involved in all levels of analysis. They don't just do grunt work."

--Jonathan Morales