Universitas Helsingiensis


The quarterly of the University of Helsinki
Eternal Pompeii
The University of Helsinki excavation team unearths true stories about the people of ancient Pompeii.

Reetta Vairimaa

Back to winter issue 2006


Ancient Rome is now in vogue. The popular television series produced by the BBC and HBO has stirred interest in many of the viewers about how the Romans really lived. Public libraries receive numerous queries on the subject every day. Interest in the topic is in fact so wide that one librarian thought it best to contact Paavo Castrén, a professor emeritus in classical philology, for advice.

Castrén was just the man to help. He has headed the Expeditio Pompeiana Universitatis Helsingiensis (EPUH), the Pompeii Project of the University of Helsinki, for five years, leading the group’s investigative work on Pompeian excavations. This September, Castrén also published his book Pompejilaisia kohtaloita, ‘Pompeian Lives’, later probably to be published in English and Italian.

“Fictive films and books about ancient Rome are good for our cause, as they capture people’s interest and make them ask questions. The series should, however, be watched as entertainment, not as a historical documentary,” says Castrén.

Despite the welcome attention, Castrén is frustrated by the sensationalism in fiction about Rome. “Many details could just as easily be correct, if only the makers could be bothered to check. It is as if our history today were one day to be written based on tabloid headlines alone,” he says.

Castrén’s own book is “90 per cent fact and 10 per cent fiction”. It tells the stories of a freedman’s daughter who becomes a famous actress and of a reckless youth growing into a responsible mayor, and describes the everyday life of Marcus Lucretius, a cavalry officer of the city and a priest of Mars. All the characters are real people who lived in Pompeii; the House of Marcus Lucretius is the very site that the EPUH group is investigating.

“I have written about things as they could have been,” Castrén says. “The marriages and deaths I describe are realistic but fiction in as much as there is no historical evidence of them. My aim was to give as truthful an image as possible of the lives of people living during the classical period without sensationalising it, to show that even this can be interesting.”

Exhibition and book

More information about the real lives of the ancient Pompeians will be available to the public in February 2008, when the Amos Anderson Art Museum opens its exhibition on the results of the excavation. The exhibition will display a 3D virtual model of the House of Marcus Lucretius, findings of the Finnish group and objects to be loaned from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

Next year, the EPUH group will also produce a scientific publication on the excavations, including contributions from the students who have worked on the site. Each year, the EPUH has employed third- or fourth-year students.

“This is the best training the students can have. The international evaluation of the University commended us for allowing students to train in Pompeii. It has also proved a sound principle that students should write their first international publication under the supervision of senior researchers,” says Castrén.

Making way for the new generation

After the exhibition and the publication, Castrén has decided to retire from heading the project. The insula, or city block, allocated to the Finnish group will provide work for researchers for at least another ten years.

“I have to give way to the new generation. My job has been first and foremost to network and build contacts for the group. I have 45 years’ experience in working in Pompeii, and many of the archaeological group leaders used to be my fellow students when we were young,” Castrén says.

Pompeii is a cosmopolitan working environment. There are archaeologists from at least fifteen different countries working there. Finns have close relations particularly with their Swedish, Italian, Dutch and German colleagues. In addition to research teams, the place swarms with tourists.

“We try to keep the flag flying for the Univer-sity of Helsinki. Although the project now involves others, it was originally based on an initiative of the University of Helsinki, and it would probably have come to nothing were it not for the Rector’s wise decision to grant us start-up funding for the first three years,” says Castrén.

In addition to his recent book, Castrén’s Finnish translation of De agri cultura (On Farming), by Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder, came out this September. It has a wealth of interesting information on the everyday lives of the people in the Roman Republic, including complete ham-curing instructions and praise for cabbage which reveals how cabbage can be used both internally and externally for one’s health.


Paavo Castrén: Pompeian Lives

During the reign of the Emperor Nero, the Pompeians often had the pleasure of seeing performances by Paris, “who was Nero’s favourite pantomimist. Admittedly, he was the best, and he was also very aware of his talent. A philosopher had once ventured to say to Paris that music was the single most important thing in the art of pantomime and that a performance without music could not exist. Paris is said to have responded by performing a scene portraying the adultery of Aphrodite and Ares, without music, with such conviction that it left little room for the imagination.

When Paris and his entourage and orchestra arrived in Pompeii, the whole town came out to see them. Those who organised the shows had made sure to put up advertisements along the streets and in neighbouring towns weeks earlier and many private individuals had scratched graffiti into walls in praise of the great artist. The most ardent supporters of Paris had formed an unofficial society, called the Paridiani. Paris performed both in the square and in the large theatre, where spectators had begun to assemble hours before the performance. He usually stayed at the house of the organising official, who was proud to be able to provide lodgings for such a notable guest and the Emperor’s favourite. In the meantime, the orchestra and their assistants carried instruments to the venue, while the choir practised in the smaller, covered theatre. When the show eventually began, it started off with performances by young, lesser-known artists, building suspense and excitement before Paris’s grand entrance.

Using my mother’s connections, I sometimes managed to see the rehearsals and even actual performances, and once I was fortunate enough to be allowed to watch Paris prepare for the show. He had numerous assistants in his dressing room, as well as a vast selection of women’s and men’s costumes, hanging on stands so that he could quickly and easily change into a new one during the performance. The clothes were luxurious, colourful and probably terribly expensive. Paris would sit by his dressing table, watching himself in the mirror as his assistants fitted wigs and masks on him. He seemed to get into his various roles by occasionally standing up and taking tentative dance steps, donning a flowing piece of costume while he did so. It was said that he went on concentrating like this for hours, and all the assistants had to be completely still the whole time – unless a flautist had to rehearse the musical themes of the performance with the master.

Rescue operation

The EPUH group has been allocated a city block of 3,500 square metres, comprising the patrician house of Marcus Lucretius, a laundry, a couple of bakeries, shops and plebeian houses. The investigations of the Lucretius house are now complete.

Although one-third of Pompeii is still buried in ash, the investigations are targeted at the buildings partly excavated as long as 150 years ago. There is no time to be wasted, since the weather and time severely damage the ruins.

According to Professor Castrén, there is no sense in starting new excavations until the exposed ones have been properly investigated. “The above-ground structures are at the risk of dilapidation due to exposure to wind and rain. In the course of the past five years alone, significant erosion has taken place. One can only imagine what the previous 150 years have done.”

Besides wind and rain, Pompeii is also constantly under the threat of a new volcanic eruption. Vesuvius, which erupted in 79 AD destroying Pompeii, has since spewed lava or ashes at regular intervals, the last time being in 1944. The next eruption can happen any time.

The race against time has roused the Italians to welcome international assistance. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when Castrén was working on his doctorate, the authorities were more protective of Pompeii, and it was difficult to obtain research permits for the site. This attitude changed only in the mid-1990s.

Hard labour

There are currently some twenty Finns working in Pompeii. They have been organised into four groups. The archaeological group is studying the structures to determine which are the original building parts and which parts are later additions. They have also conducted minor excavations below the 79 BC street level and into layers inside the buildings that have not previously been touched.

The wall painting group studies and copies murals, while the survey group takes measurements and draws maps, and the photographer circulates around the site documenting all the stages of the work. Castrén’s task is to find out who the people living in the city block were. His sources include election advertisements on the walls and seals and graffiti discovered in the dwellings.

The EPUH group usually embarks on an excavation trip in May or September, this year in both. In the summer months it is too hot, and in the winter too cold and dark. “The excavation work is actually really tough; sometimes I wonder how my young colleagues manage. Basically you crouch at the bottom of the dig under the scorching sun all day. Still, many people keep contacting us, wishing to join the excavations. I am not sure that they have any idea what the work is really like,” Castrén says.

The archaeologists are not even dreaming of ever happening on any real treasures, but well-preserved waste mounds are valuable finds. Finns have discovered a toilet pit in their city block, into which food scraps had also been thrown. Contained in an anaerobic space, the heap gives clues about the ancient Pompeian diet.

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