The final years at Pompeii were framed by two natural disasters: a devastating earthquake in A.D. 62, whose epicenter was at Pompeii, and the cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 that destroyed the city. The conjunction of circumstances that damaged and then destroyed Pompeii provides a unique opportunity for us to use the city as an urban laboratory in which we can observe the nature and the degree of the Pompeian response to the disaster of 62. Like the great fires of Rome in 64 and in London in 1666, the earthquake at Pompeii presented its inhabitants with a challenge and a need to rebuild, as well as an opportunity to rebuild in a manner and on a scale that they many never have undertaken if disaster had not struck. Careful observation allows us to measure that response, and the conclusions are both new and exciting as they pertain to individual buildings and to the urban core as a whole. Pompeii, then, in a very rare and important way, permits us to come face to face with civic aspirations , building techniques, and urban design schemes of the third quarter of the first century A.D. The narrowly circumscribed sequence of damage, recovery, and destruction assumes considerable importance for a clearer understanding of the history of urban form as well as for the study of Pompeii itself.


Begun in 1988, the project is an architectural analysis that offers a bold challenge to traditional research methodologies and to widely published and generally accepted views about the forum. The project has reached a plateau with the publication of a long article by the project director (Dobbins): American Journal of Archaeology (forthcoming October 1994) and by his appointment as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (at the University of Virginia) for the 1993-94 academic year where he is pursuing 2D and 3D computer modelling of the forum using AutoCAD. These two developments helped to transform the project in 1993 from a one-person research project to a collaborative effort that is now seeking major funding from outside granting agencies.

Collaborators are Harrison Eiteljorg, Director, Center for the Study of Architecture, Bryn Mawr, PA (Classical Archaeologist, computer and AutoCAD specialist); Larry F. Ball, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point (Classical Archaeologist, specialist in Roman architecture); Carroll William Westfall, Professor, School of Architecture, U.Va. (urban architectural historian); Robert Dripps, Professor, School of Architecture, U.Va. (urban designer); Karim M. Hanna, 1994 U.Va. graduate (computer and AutoCAD specialist; research assistant).


Documentation. Existing architectural plans of the forum are inaccurate and incomplete in many ways. Moreover, the buildings on the forum have not been fully documented by elevation drawings, black-and-white photography, or computer models of the buildings and their evolution. Without being overly dramatic, it should be emphasized that Pompeii is in a seismically active region of Italy (witness the serious earthquake in 1980) and that Vesuvius is an active volcano. It is within the realm of possibility that Pompeii will suffer serious damage or destruction by natural causes at some time in the future. Moreover, the rapid degradation of the architectural and decorative remains that the project director has been able to document since 1983 point to the urgent need for a thorough recording of preserved data. Consequently, the Pompeii Forum Project seeks to produce new and more accurate plans, elevations, large-format black-and-white photographs, and computer models of the standing remains.

Archaeological Analysis. The data collected by the project director have already led to exciting discoveries that are discussed below under "Significance". A major objective is to continue such analysis and to encourage discussions of Pompeian urbanism among scholars throughout the world.

Urbanism. Collaborators wish to interpret the data from Pompeii in a wider urbanistic context that has applications to contemporary problems in American urbanism--the inclusion of an urban historian and an urban designer in the project accounts for this development. Far from being unique, Pompeii's urban history shares much with urban developments throughout the ages. Renaissance architects faced the question of eliminating or incorporating extant Medieval structures into the fabric of newly designed cities just as Pompeii's builders has to incorporate or demolish structures that survived the earthquake of 62. The same issues exist in American cities that have been devastated by earthquake, riot, or decades of urban neglect. Pompeii's uniquen ess resides in the extensive preservation of masses of data that can allow the urban historian and practicing urban designer to study in very precise detail the Pompeian response to recurring urban problems. In that way the designer can extract the "endu ring paradigms" (as Robert Dripps refers to these recurring patterns) and apply them after appropriate modification to the contemporary urban scene. Pompeii's importance, then, lies in the recurring patterns which it shares with cities throughout the wor ld from various periods and in its unique data base.


The forum's buildings would seem to invite a traditional building-by-building analysis and interpretation. However, the extensive physical overlapping and interconnections of buildings indicate that the Pompeians themselves did not conceive of their urba n center as a series of discrete structures. Instead, they gave primacy to the urban ensemble. This project's methods of gathering and interpreting data are innovative in that they replicate the approach that the Pompeian designers took. This me thodology, in turn, prepares the way for broad conclusions of an urbanistic nature. While various studies consider the whole forum, they treat buildings individually; they incompletely document the evidence; and they fail to recognize that the associa tion of facts is in itself an essential class of evidence. While not neglecting any class of evidence, the present field methods are fundamentally archaeological and structural in that they document building materials and techniques: the relationshi ps between walls, i.e., bonding or abutting; seams between different types of masonry that may indicate different building phases; cracks resulting from the Vesuvian eruption, which, as they do not signal different building phases, must be distinguished f rom seams; vestiges of painted plaster; evidence for marble revetment; the superimposition of decorative wall treatments, i.e., setting beds for marble veneer on top of finished-coat plaster belonging to an earlier period; and evidence of earthquake repair--especially important, as this confirms the existence of a building before the earthquake. Simply stated, the method involves the wall-by-wall observation and recording of all preserved features, which are then interpreted on an urban scale.

Beginning in 1994 documentation will be performed using a total station (an electronic surveying device) that interfaces with AutoCAD so that data can be transformed on-site into plans and models using a laptop computer equipt with AutoCAD. Black-and-white photography will employ 4"x5" negatives in order to achieve archival quality results. Four collaborators will work at Pompeii for two weeks during June 1994 in order to (1) test equipment and field procedures and (2) begin work as a team so that major scholarly issues can be refined in the field and specifics of the research design can be worked out in advance of the first longer season planned for 1995.


The conventional view holds that the forum had not returned to full functioning and was still in shambles when Vesuvius erupted. The designation "builders' yard" is frequently applied to the post-62 forum. During the nineteenth century August Mau laid t he foundation for this widely held opinion, and the twentieth-century archaeological investigations and building analyses of Amadeo Maiuri ostensibly confirmed the opinion. Most commentators on Pompeii follow Mau and Maiuri to a considerable degree.

Evidence gathered by the project director points to a comprehensive post-earthquake (i.e., post-62) plan for the east side of the forum, a design whose hallmarks are the unification and monumentalization of the urban center; these goals were achieved by blocking streets, linking facades, upgrading building materials, and emphasizing the now more prominent northeastern and southeastern entrances. The concomitant economic implications are significant. Rather than being a symbol of the depressed economic conditions at Pompeii after A.D. 62, the forum with its vigorous and ambitious post-earthquake building program reveals both a desire to rebuild on a grand scale and an ability (with assistance from Rome?) to carry it out. In addition, much of the project 's significance and innovativeness resides in its potential for transcending the purely archaeological component and contributing a) to a broader diachronic understanding of urban issues, and b) to creative solutions to contemporary urban design problems.

The Nature of this Report

The information presented here on the World Wide Web is a research report submitted at the end of my 1993-94 year as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia. By exploring a series of plans, photographs, models, and texts a user can sample some of the problems that I have been wrestling with regarding the evolution of the Pompeian forum and some of the solutions that I have reached. The work presented here is a subset of the larger project and focuses mainly on the Imperial Cult Building. Interested readers should consult my article, "Problems of Chronology, Decoration, and Urban Design in the Forum at Pompeii," AJA 98 (1994) 629-694. Part of the aim in this research report is to present new interpretations and part is to employ new technologies in presenting those interpretations.


Appreciation is extended to Baldassare Conticello, Soprintendente alle Antichità di Pompei, and to the staff at the Soprintendenza archeologica and the Direzione degli Scavi for facilitating the work accomplished to date.

The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities has provided the equipment, space, and technical staff that has made it possible to present this report on the World Wide Web. The Institute's role in advancing, indeed transforming, the Pompeii Fo rum Project has been enormous. Appreciation is extended to John M. Unsworth, Director; Thornton Staples, Assistant Director; and to Dot Akinola, Karen Dietz, Rob Cordaro, Ross Wayland, Jason Haynes and all others whose expertise has been crucial. From a plan inked on mylar by Melissa Pinsley, Stephen French produced the computer-generated plan of the forum that is used as the first step in navigating through this report. Christie D. Stephenson, Assistant Librarian at the Fiske Kimball Fine Arts Library produced the digital images from color slides. The most influential person during this fellowship year, however, has been Karim Hanna whose official title has been "research assitant". As a computer expert and an AutoCAD specialist, Karim has been mentor and collaborator. His patience and dedication have been appreciated from the first day and the results of his good work are to be seen in every aspect of the following report.

John J. Dobbins, Associate Professor of Classical Art & Archaeology, McIntire Department of Art, Fayerweather Hall, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA USA 22903

Comments from Readers
John J. Dobbins: dobbins@virginia.edu

If your client supports fill-out forms, click here for a page onto which you can enter your remarks. Otherwise, use regular e-mail.

Comments are welcome. I will attempt to post a sample of comments in this section. In order to enhance the interactive capacity of the Internet I will respond to questions asked. Moreover, if readers would like to see a comment on a specific aspect of the research or would like a specific image to be presented, please let me know. As I will be in Pompeii for two weeks in June, 1994, it will be possible to examine issues or take photographs for presentation here that are requested by readers. Requests should be made by the end of May.

To go to the opening plan of the forum, which in turn will lead to other plans, images, and discussions, click HERE.

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Last Modified: Wednesday, 11-Jan-2006 16:10:42 EST