The excavation took days, and the object emerged slowly, a broken vase dusted with the colour of the earth. We are the first to behold, in over two thousand years, this relic buried by Vesuvius.
We have spent weeks on this corner of the villa, peeling away the soil and debris, stratum by stratum, working our way from the newest deposit to the oldest stone buried beneath the ash and lapilli left by the volcanic eruption. Each layer is a narrative that tells of different times and different lives in this entombed city.
This is my second month on the site, but I have not managed to start a personal journal until now.
I began the day by documenting and drawing the excavated artefacts, to add to our chronology of the room. Much is lost in the process of excavation. These detailed records form a time capsule that captures the instant when the object emerged from its pyroclastic burial. Some we will re-bury after the documenting, in order to protect them from the elements. In many ways, the volcano preserved just as it had destroyed.
In the afternoon, we discussed a possible error in the dating of one of the structures in our insula. The constant need to establish dates. We completed more analyses of the earthen deposits, and looked at the wall’s interaction with the floor, going back to the greyish-brown silt for more information. Dirt is never just dirt.
An hour ago, I received news of B’s death in an email from H, B’s sister, another spectre from the past.
Fifteen years since B. and I were man and wife. Twenty years since we last held hands. Twenty-eight years since we first met in the storage room of the museum.
We ask questions of history, and sometimes history answers back in muted tones or unknown tongues, and we must decipher the meanings.
B. and I met in the cluttered back room of the museum, amongst the objects laid out for cataloguing. He wore a bright shirt – a kind of cadmium yellow – that stood out against the pale, ashen colours of the vases, jars, and plates transported from distant sites. Because B. was the artist-in-residence at the museum, we collaborated on the cataloguing of the collection, each day handling the objects in our hands, examining them and transcribing the descriptions in writing. The catalogue was the first thing we built together.
The second thing we built together was a shared life. Falling in love felt less like excavation – which is what I always assumed it would be – than construction, rapidly piling on memories and events, moving from one label to the next – date, girlfriend, partner, wife – until we created a massive, labyrinthine structure that neither of us recognized or understood.
The museum collection we worked on eventually moved to the back of the storage space, its spot of priority taken up by other collections, other projects. We never collaborated on anything again.
More fragments of vases and amphorae have been unearthed from the site. Soon, I will start working on one of the walls. According to an eighteenth-century traveler’s account, there might be a fresco buried beneath.
I have here with me a book B. gave me for a birthday or anniversary one year. It is misleadingly entitled A History of Landscape, but is in fact a mixture of memoir and anecdotal history, written by a painter who wanders through the English countryside in the aftermath of loss. We had seen the artist’s work in various museums and galleries. The sort of abstract expressionism that B. was fond of. I liked how the lines appeared straight from afar, like bare trees in winter, but up close one could see the gasps and agitations, the tremors and movement of the artist’s hand.
The book became a kind of shared journal or commonplace book. We took turns reading it. B. underlined sentences in black ink, I underlined in red, and the underlining became a record of an unspoken line of thought. Sometimes he circled certain words, like “vermillion,” or “effacement,” words that signaled to me what he might have been feeling. Sometimes we each copied down, in the margins, quotes from our other readings, without caring about whether there is any relevance to the text printed on the page.
After the separation, the book became mine. Over the years, I have interleaved into the pages of the book other writings, photos, clip-outs, notes, maps. The book swelled and the two sides of the cover bent outward. The original text is now scarcely visible under the many pieces I have pasted into the book, though some fragments can still be read.
The fields are spectacularly green in the setting sun. This green earth is the living home of Beauty. And as I roam the hillside, it is as if Beauty has pitched her tent before me as I move.
Excavation is a destructive process, slow and deliberate. Two thousands years of construction, burial, excavation, erosion, and warfare have changed the buildings beyond recognition. Walls are pulled down and rebuilt, then pulled down again. Doorways are filled or carved into existing walls. In the villa that is our current dig site, the walls have crumbled, the floor cracked, the marbled tiles looted by the early visitors. Bombs dropped by Allied Forces during WWII have destroyed the pool in the garden. The internal landscape of a building is constantly changing.
I suddenly recall a line of poetry B. once quoted to me – B. was always citing lines – something about the distance that exists between one side of the bed and the other, a distance that expands over time. It was something he quoted not long after our conversation about my plan to join an excavation project, one which I had longed to be a part of.
How long will you be gone? He asked.
Around a year. Maybe more.
What about our life here? He asked, to which I had no response.
You could come with me, I said, to which he responded with silence.
I have already mourned B. once. He died for the first time when we ceased to love one another. In a way, none of this is new.
“History and elegy are kin.”
Today I supervised the new field research students in washing the debris. We start with caution and we sieve patiently, looking for gold in the form of pottery sherds, tesserae, shells, lithic tools, plaster, even shrapnel left from the WWII bombings. Once the sherds have been cleaned, they must be glued back together. The sieving also separates out the organic material too small to be seen by the naked eye – these float when passed through the water tanks. Fish bones, mammal bones, marine shells, olive pips – the bits that speak of the lives once lived.
“The archive is like a forest without clearings, but by inhabiting it for a long time, your eyes become accustomed to the dark, and you can make out the outlines of the trees.”
This morning, the students recorded each stratographic context by examining the successive layers of soil – the colours and composition – laid down over time. We also listened to a talk about life in Pompeii, and imagined those final hours when the citizens looked up at the sky and saw their fate.
Disasters often occur without warning. Or perhaps the warnings were never interpreted as such. In Pompeii, the springs dried up following the initial tremors, but no one recognized this as a sign of imminent destruction, therefore many people chose to stay. Then – clouds of ash and pumice and rock. Magma and volcanic mud. Darkness.
The word “disaster” is derived from the Italian dis-astrato, literally “de-starred,” or abandoned by the protective stars, subjected to the vicissitudes of fate. Perhaps there were signs that predicted the demise of love, but I failed to read or interpret them. The building of a relationship seemed to be composed of discrete moments. But its dissolution resists a clear narrative arc. I remember the look of exhaustion on B’s face when he sat waiting for me in the living room one day. I remember the way he began to lay in bed with his hands behind his head, so our limbs did not touch, and so his shoulder was no longer available for me to rest my head on. I remember the old Christmas and birthday cards lying at the bottom of the recycling bin.
When we knew there was nothing that could be done to salvage what we had built, we took everything apart, object by object. We catalogued our belongings and partitioned them into separate boxes at opposite ends of the house, bound for separate destinations. The books, chairs, mugs, plates, cushions. We could not remember, or chose not to remember, the narratives behind those objects.
“It is like travel. You journey from the event and as it becomes more distant it becomes less potent and more poignant, like a remembered home. As the weeks go by the knife turns differently.”
I have been transferred to a different part of the villa, where I begin working on the wall.
Another team has revealed a new fresco in the lararium of an adjacent villa. A wild riot of verdant beauty. Small birds fluttering around leafy shrubs, sinuous snakes encircling green plants. A flourishing of oleanders, myrtles, and daisies. And there, in a prominent spot in the fresco, a pinecone – a symbol of eternal life. The grove or wood – lucus – would have been considered sacred to the Romans, a plot of natural splendour that lies outside the world of polluting politics and commerce. But while the spectator is invited to enter the Arcadian vision of the fresco, he is forever confined to his own space, with all its materialism, barred from the ideal painted on the wall.
Green Earth is the name of the pigment used in this fresco, I learned, derived from the minerals celadonite and glauconite, a colour extracted from the Earth. But perhaps like the other frescoes and murals, this colour too will fade once exposed to the sunlight and the elements. Even the frescoes in the iconic Pompeiian red have faded, though “red” is misleading, for the pigment used was actually the less expensive yellow – possibly the toxic lead-based Naples Yellow from Mount Vesuvius itself – that had reacted with the gas emitted by the volcano and transmuted into the orange-tinted red.
I hope to find, behind the layers of calcified ash before me, a beautiful grove of trees and birds.
I yearn for those green remembered hills, those spires in the distance, the light that crawls across the echoing green.
I have been peeling away the layers of the wall, but there are not yet any hints of green. Only an incomprehensible blend of brownish bronze and grey.
So much is unknown or unknowable when we look at the strata before us. But history will clean up the mess, or rather, the writing of history will tidy everything into books, all the objects, places and persons will be slotted into appropriate boxes, properly labeled. But right now, everything is inchoate.
I’m trying to recall acts of kindness, of love, between B. and I. I’m certain they exist, but they are unremembered.
“What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain? … Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet in reality not one has been extinguished.”
During my break today, I went to look at the Fiorelli casts in the Conservation Lab. It is strange to see the body casts left alongside the tools, ceramic fragments, and other archived items. It feels somehow indecent to leave them like that, these hollowed out human forms, with their rough hewn limbs, their shells of petrified volcanic ash encasing the remaining bones. The forms speak to me. They seem to say, in their ancient tongues, “You must change your life.”
In Roberto Rossellini’s movie Voyage to Italy, a married coupled visit Pompeii and view the casts, which, in the film, act as symbols of the marriage that retains an intact outward form, but is hollow within. We visited Pompeii together, B. and I, in the early years of our marriage. B. had a residency in Switzerland, and we took the opportunity to travel. At the time, B. was experimenting with his new camera, and took grainy black-and-white photographs of the ruins, the camera freezing them in time, just as the volcanic eruption had done.
There was one particular photo I was fond of – a wall with two windows, exposing the view of another ruinous wall beyond. Painted around the windows is a faded fresco depicting a pastoral scene – people sitting idly beneath a tree, with a pavilion in the distance. Leaning against the tree is a votive tablet, inscribed with an epigram that is too effaced to be read. Nearby, small white birds in flight.
I remember B’s fondness for the fresco, the way he spoke of how the tree, standing beside the pavilion, highlights the contrast between the natural world and the human world of built forms. But while human monuments will eventually fall into ruin, the vegetation will remain in a cycle of continual renewal. B. often quoted from Pliny the Elder, who died at Pompeii: “The earth makes us also sacred, even bearing our monuments and epitaphs and prolonging our name and extending our memory against the shortness of time.”
I have tucked a copy of the photo into A History of Landscape, and have located this wall in the House of the Ceii. The image seems two-dimensional to me somehow, the surface texture of the stone and fresco eliding the distinction between the wall in the foreground and the one in the back. Looking at the photo now, I begin to remember what it felt like to love B.
When next it rains, look at a blade of grass through a drop of morning dew, and you will see how it appears blue, not green.
Today, I went to look at the so-called Blue Room in Villa Vestali. “Blue” is misleading, for centuries of weathering have obliterated the original fresco, which was probably painted in a brilliant Egyptian blue. An eighteenth-century drawing is the only record we have of the original fresco, and I held a print in front of me today as I stood before the remnant of the fresco, with its strata of browns, save for one corner on which powdery blue still clings. “Nothing beside remains.” These words have spoken to me about the loss of homes, the slipping away of time. But as I look at the remaining patch of blue, I am convinced that some things do remain.
I remember a walk that B. and I had taken in the woods, during happier days, him walking ahead, taking photos of the trees and bluebells, occasionally turning back to wave to me. He suddenly stopped in the middle of a grove and began singing, for we were alone in the woods, sang at the top of his lungs, a song whose name I cannot recall, gesturing to the trees and the twittering birds that joined in a chorus. I remember the smell of the leaves after rain, the texture of the wet ground, and the view of the open fields beyond, glimpsed through the trees as I listened to him sing. So this is what it feels like to love him.
It has been so long since I have beheld these beauteous forms and they now appear to me as a bright landscape seen for the first time by a blind man.
They are digging deeper and deeper into the past, to a time before the volcanic eruption, when lives different from the ones now encased in plaster flourished, when another topography existed, when other building, trees and hills inscribed themselves on the land. So much remains to be excavated. The landscape of the city is not a wide expanse stretching to the horizon, but a vertical column reaching down into the earth.
Today, I brushed away the last layer of ash to reveal an unmistakable patch of brilliant green.