Gangs of Pompeii: Volcanologists vs Archaeologists

“An eruption of Vesuvius seen from Portici by Joseph Wright of Derby.” Public Domain/Wikipedia

Guest “you couldn’t make this sort of schist up, if you were trying” by David Middleton

Pompeii row erupts between rival scientific factions

Volcanologists say excavations by archaeologists are destroying useful clues about lava flow

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent
Mon 22 Jul 2019 02.00 EDT


After years of simmering tensions, a row has broken out between the two scientific factions, and volcanologists published an open letter in the journal Nature this month criticising the “alarming” destruction of volcanic deposits.

“They seem not to realise that the enthusiasm for archaeology is committing an act of vandalism to volcanology,” said Roberto Scandone, a professor of volcanology at the Roma Tre University. “Leaving some of the deposits in place is valuable not only for scientists but also for visitors, who will be able to see at first hand how the volcano destroyed the town.”

Archaeologists say they are collaborating with volcanologists at the University of Naples and point out there is plenty more volcanic rock for earth scientists to work on beyond the zone of archaeological interest.


Christopher Kilburn, an earth scientist at University College London, believes the reason Pompeii has become a town synonymous with catastrophe has been sidelined. “There’s a sense of frustration that volcanology is not being taken terribly seriously,” he said. “You go to Pompeii and there’s virtually no mention of the volcano at all.”

According to Kilburn, scientists have been barred from accessing certain areas for health and safety reasons. “But when something interesting is found, all the TV crews and media were there,” he said. “It seems it wasn’t dangerous to them but was dangerous to the professional volcanologists.”


Douglas Adams The Grauniad

Is it volcanologist or vulcanologist?

volcanologist; vulcanologist One versed in the study of volcanic phenomena. A volcanist.

American Geological Institute. Dictionary of Geological Terms. Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976.

While, I would side with the volcanologists on this… I think this is the real source of the dispute…

“Many respectable physicists volcanologists vulcanologists volcanists said that they weren’t going to stand for this — partly because it was a debasement of science, but mostly because they didn’t get invited to those sort of parties.”

― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (paraphrased)

Funny thing, the Grauniad Cheeseface bit was personalized…

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I support The Grauniad by drawing attention to its abysmal science journalism… Although, in this particular case, the science journalism wasn’t abysmal… It was Douglas Adams-like…

Zaphod Beeblebrox says ayyy!!!

76 thoughts on “Gangs of Pompeii: Volcanologists vs Archaeologists

  1. What could possibly explain how a sane person could stumble across an article like archaeologists versus volclanologists in Pompeii? Did someone leave it in the back-of-the-seat pocket on an airline flight and you found it? As a geologist who has studied and worked extensively with volcanos and their myriad of products and effects I can declare, without any more study of the issue, that there is plenty of the welded tuff residue from this famous eruption left for volcanologists and their students to study for many generations to come. This sounds like a turf war, maybe with research grants hanging in the balance.

    • It was in the Real Clear Science feed… and it was screaming for a Douglas Adams treatment… 😎

        • It would appear to be based on a letter to Nature. Despite what David might think
          this would appear to be an entirely reasonable story about a letter to Nature. If you
          want to make fun of anyone Nature should be the target not the Guardian.

          • So making a big deal about a stupid story is ok because someone else mentioned it first.

          • Mark,
            Who said it was a big deal. I suspect that the reporter thought the whole thing
            was a bit of fine since most people would react as David did and roll their eyes
            at the stupidity of the people involved. As far as I can tell the reporting is accurate in that it properly reflects the contents of the letter and provides some context to the issue. It might be a minor story but it is not bad journalism.

    • “This sounds like a turf war…”

      This could be going on, but it has that familiar ring of a journalist making up a story.

  2. They don’t like talking about the volcano because no wants to have to think that Vesuvius could do the same thing again to Naples, a city of millions of inhabitants.

  3. Despite being an esteemed galactic historian, Douglas Adams inexplicably neglected to mention the Golgafrinchan Scout Fleet in his tomes.

    The Scout Fleet was crewed by the most respected philologists, linguists, and the like that they could find (easily done, they were the ones walking down the street muttering “‘Vulcan,’ ‘volcan,’ ‘hot rock lovers,’ what?”

    Their purpose was to name everything on the new world, so that the colonists would have a common language from the start.

    Fortunately unfortunately, these brave pioneers were marooned when a dispute arose about whether the button to lift off from the planet was the one marked “Start,” or the one marked “Initiate,” or the one marked “Return”…

      • Vulcan was the good of many things including fire and crafting. An ugly god who’s wife was the most beautiful woman in the world, who would get pissed of when she fooled around and would cause Mount Etna (in Sicily) to erupt and rumble as he banged away at his forge. Vulcan was the Roman god of Volcanoes or in Italian Vulcani.

  4. It was Douglas Adams-like…

    There’s a theme in his misnamed trilogy about job security for philosophers. If a computer had calculated the answer for everything, there would be no need for philosophers, would there? Well maybe. Wittgenstein put a cap on western philosophy and it hasn’t affected the job market for philosophers in the least.

    In light of the above, the squabble between volcanologists and archaeologists does seem like something from one of Adams’ books.

    On the other hand, the Guardian is, in no way, as well written or entertaining as Adams’ delightful books.

  5. I don’t think anybody wants to see firsthand how a pyroclast cloud at 100mph and 460 deg F works.
    Right now the Pacific Ring of Fire is waking up.
    Nobody knows why Solar minima are correlated with the most powerful eruptions.
    Is the Yellow Alert for Vesuvius still in place? They expect a VEI 4.

  6. Why do they need to talk about the volcano? It is right there in plain sight. Sounds like someone’s funding is in danger of shrinking.

  7. The volc…vulc..guys who study volcanoes just do not grasp that, volcanoes-go-boom-people-die is about all the public cares to know about the subject, whereas the erotic murals unearthed in
    Pompeii’s brothels are worth studying for an extended period of time.

  8. “IN 1985 A CATACLYSMIC COINCIDENCE OF PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN PROPORTION EXTINGUISHED VIRTUALLY ALL FORMS OF LIFE ON THE NORTH AMERICAN CONTINENT.” David Macaulay, 1979. “Motel of the Mysteries.” Houghton Mifflin. In 4022 they found “Fragments of Plasticus Petrificus.”

  9. Hey, I developed a building stone quarry near Moshi Tanzania 35yrs ago in an 8 metre thick ignimbrite (“welded” volcanic ash) deposit that lay at the foot of Kilimanjaro volcano. Don’t tell the volcs!

    • You know, Gary, I think you and I would love to see Archaeologists cutting clean faces through the separate eruptive units and the cooling units, so we would have a clean face to study. Geology field trips tend to focus on road cuts for this reason (sorry about those crashes from distracted drivers!).

      • Yeah Ron that’s a good point! Every field trip I’ve been on, road cuts figured prominently. The “dispute” seems so silly, whatever has happened to this world of ours?

  10. Is it not common to dig and drill down through the dirt, rocks and ice to determine what happened when. It seems it would be a good idea for the ones studying lava flow to be on site when the archaeologists dig down to discover the human history of the town. Let the archaeologists do the hard digging work and the lava flow interest observe and record. And enjoy the view.

  11. What the volcanologists should be doing right now is working on predicting the next dangerous eruption by Vesuvius or the Phlegraean Fields, either of which could be extremely nasty. When you visit Pompeii, you go there to see the work of the archaeologists in revealing the past of the Roman Empire, not to check which way the lava and pumice went in 79 AD. I support the Archaeologists. Keep Digging.

  12. Decades ago when I was trying to find a history of interest rates in Roman Times, I came across a book recording the graffiti on the walls at Pompeii.
    There was nothing about interest rates.
    But there was:
    “Julia does it for 2 drachmas”

  13. …mostly because they didn’t get invited to those sort of parties.”

    What a shame – all it takes to keep geologists happy is a keg. It doesn’t even have to be very good beer!

    SAN FRANCISCO — Fact: Geologists love beer.

    There is abundant proof of this here at the American Geophysical Union meeting, the largest collection of earth scientists in the world.

    The talks, workshops and poster sessions go from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., but at 3:30 p.m. every day, for five days, kegs of beer are rolled out into the meeting. The beer flows nonstop for an hour and a half at around 10 different stations, and AGU organizers tell me they go through about 175 kegs during the week.

    [Wine and whiskey notes.] Beer and geology, on the other hand, are closely entwined, Dr. Maltman said last month at a seminar on geology and beer held at a meeting of the Geological Society of America.

    For one, geologists drink lots of beer, typically ending a long day examining rocks with a trip to the nearest bar. Mayor John W. Hickenlooper of Denver, a former geologist turned pub owner, told the geologists how an earlier geology meeting in 1988 bolstered his fledgling microbrewery.

    • Wine and geology area also closely entwined… However, we never looked for a wine bar on the way back from field trips… We looked for beer & pizza joints.

      • Why do you think I changed my major from geography to geology – for 30+ years as a field geologist I got paid to get dirty taking my aggravations out on rocks and having beers on company time and on their dime.

        • Physical geography is kind of like geology… I still refer to Compton on a regular basis… But it’s now easier to solve 3-point problems in Excel.

    • Beer and nuclear physics are also entwined – sometimes, somewhere. Once upon a time the labs at Los Alamos ran tritium particle beams. Tritium, of course, is merely an exceptionally *active* form of hydrogen, and you could not count on it all staying in the accelerator. So each day, after their shifts, the physicists would go forth and drink beer, with ordinary hydrogen in it, to flush out that nasty tritium that may have snuck into their bloodstreams.

      Or so I have been told.

  14. How’s the frackin’ planet doin’???
    time mark at 2:42.
    “Ask those people at Pompei, ‘How’s the planet doing?’ who are frozen into position… from volcanic ash, ‘How’s the planet doing?”

  15. Volcanology sounds about as useful as Vulcan Phrenonology.
    Just what important and useful discoveries are there to be made?

    • Volcanology has more practical applications than some other scientific disciplines. For instance, the danger zone around Vesuvius was first identified in 2001 by volcanologists working for the Italian Protezione Civile. Following new studies on the behavior of Plinian eruptions, the zone’s boundaries were redefined in 2013.

      There was a lot of controversy over how big to make the danger zone around Mt. St. Helens in 1980. In the event, the evacuation area was too small and the death toll would have been much higher had the beautiful, symmetrical Fuji-like volcano not committed seppuku on a Sunday. On a work day, hundreds of loggers would have been killed.

      Volcanologists know more now, thanks in large part to observations of the St. Helens eruption.

    • Volcanoes have “plumbing” and one or more magma reservoirs. In an instrumented volcano magma movement causes: gravitational anomalies, surface deformation, modification of of the local and regional stress fields. The magma evolves through time: the composition changes, the temperature changes. Magma that has a high water, silica, and high dissolved gas content explodes like popcorn when it hits the surface: (stratovocanoes like Fuji.) Stratovolcanoes can eject HF, HCl, SO2, CO2, in addition to pyroclastic flows. Magma that is low in silica, high in iron, low in water and dissolved gases produce volcanoes like in Hawaii.
      Volcanoes that are instrumented an monitored can give advanced warning of an eruption. In a Vesuvius type volcano the type of magma to be erupted and magma movements are very important to safety. In a Hawaiian type volcano not so much.

    • Why was my reply moderated, then not allowed?

      It pointed out that the study of volcanoes has practical applications, citing the danger zone around Vesuvius, as changed in 2013, and Mt. St. Helens, which in 1980 was found too small.

      What could be objectionable in these relevant comments?

  16. CNN International repeatedly ran an ad for their wonderful science coverage, highlighting “an archaeological dig” finding wonderful “Crustaceous dinosaurs” I wrote them correcting archeology to paleontology, and Crustaceous to Cretaceous, and offered to be an editor for their geological matters. They never answered and continued to run the ad. Guess to a journalist they were close enough.

    • Doug,

      don’t be silly.

      CNN is waiting for you – not redaction CNN, thei’res paltry as you – comment on CNN items.

      Thei’ll love it.

  17. The odd thing is that no amount of digging in Pompeii or Herculaneum is going do destroy any information about lava flow, since there is no lava there. As already mentioned it was covered by welded tuff, i. e. volcanic ash hot enough to stick together.

  18. I have been very disappointed by the work of some archeologists. They appear to dig for museum displayable plunder. The sites are sifted for human artifacts, preferably gold or other precious metals. The small pebbles, sand, pollen, etc. are relegated to the trash heap. Artifacts that are no easily identified are attributed to religious artifacts. I had a good laugh when I saw in a museum: stone spindle whorls, spindles, and loom weights, displayed as religious objects.

  19. Here’s the letter to Nature:

    When an eruption from Mount Vesuvius buried the town of Pompeii in southern Italy in AD 79, it left behind not only intimate details of daily life in the Roman empire, but also an extraordinary record of how volcanoes behave. These archaeological and volcanic histories together offer a unique insight into how societies live and die in the shadow of a volcano. It is alarming, therefore,that volcanic deposits are being sacrificed during archaeological excavations.

    The volcanic deposits should be preserved and studied where they landed — otherwise, the information they contain about the eruption is lost. When deposits were re-investigated in the 1980s, they revolutionized archaeological reconstructions of social conditions in Pompeii and in nearby Herculaneum.

    We have appealed to Italy’s minister for culture to leave strategic portions of the volcanic deposits untouched during Pompeii’s latest excavations. This would help to transform Vesuvius and its Roman settlements into a natural super-museum for generations to come.

  20. come back Katia and Maurice.
    Nothing quite like your knowledge and no nonsense approach about Nuees ardentes.
    Sadly it was what killed both.

  21. Some useful info:-

    “There are several mechanisms that can produce a pyroclastic flow:

    Fountain collapse of an eruption column from a Plinian eruption (e.g. Mount Vesuvius’ destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii). In such an eruption, the material forcefully ejected from the vent heats the surrounding air and the turbulent mixture rises, through convection, for many kilometers. If the erupted jet is unable to heat the surrounding air sufficiently, convection currents will not be strong enough to carry the plume upwards and it falls, flowing down the flanks of the volcano.

    Fountain collapse of an eruption column associated with a Vulcanian eruption (e.g., Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills volcano has generated many of these deadly pyroclastic flows and surges). The gas and projectiles create a cloud that is denser than the surrounding air and becomes a pyroclastic flow.

    Frothing at the mouth of the vent during degassing of the erupted lava. This can lead to the production of a rock called ignimbrite. This occurred during the eruption of Novarupta in 1912.

    Gravitational collapse of a lava dome or spine, with subsequent avalanches and flows down a steep slope (e.g., Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills volcano, which caused nineteen deaths in 1997).

    The directional blast (or jet) when part of a volcano collapses or explodes (e.g., the eruption of Mount St. Helens in May 18, 1980). As distance from the volcano increases, this rapidly transforms into a gravity-driven current.”

    Flow volumes range from a few hundred cubic meters (yards) to more than 1,000 cubic kilometres (~240 cubic miles). Larger flows can travel for hundreds of kilometres (miles), although none on that scale has occurred for several hundred thousand years. Most pyroclastic flows are around 1 to 10 km3 (about ¼ to 2½ cubic miles) and travel for several kilometres. Flows usually consist of two parts: the basal flow hugs the ground and contains larger, coarse boulders and rock fragments, while an extremely hot ash plume lofts above it because of the turbulence between the flow and the overlying air, admixing and heating cold atmospheric air causing expansion and convection.

    The kinetic energy of the moving cloud will flatten trees and buildings in its path. The hot gases and high speed make them particularly lethal, as they will incinerate living organisms instantaneously or turn them into carbonized fossils:

    The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Italy, for example, were engulfed by pyroclastic surges on August 24, 79 AD with many lives lost.

    The 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée destroyed the Martinique town of St. Pierre. Despite signs of impending eruption, the government deemed St. Pierre safe due to hills and valleys between it and the volcano, but the pyroclastic flow charred almost the entirety of the city, killing all but two of its 30,000 residents.

    A pyroclastic surge killed volcanologists Harry Glicken and Katia and Maurice Krafft and 40 other people on Mount Unzen, in Japan, on June 3, 1991. The surge started as a pyroclastic flow and the more energised surge climbed a spur on which the Kraffts and the others were standing; it engulfed them, and the corpses were covered with about 5 mm (0.2 in) of ash.”

  22. David Middleton,

    don’t sell long gone men and women for nowadays stock markets.

    Some day we’ll be the long gone men and women.

    No one ever cares about 2019 stock markets.

    Interesting stays

    long gone men and women.

    For each contemporary: men and women.

  23. The stratigraphy and petrology of the pyroclastic deposits are an important factor in the archaeology.

    No. archaeology is knowledge about men and women died.

    The stratigraphy and petrology of the pyroclastic deposits are an hint why men and women had to die.

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