Greek in Italy

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Pompeii

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An unreadable Oscan inscription - complete with uninterested bystander

An unreadable Oscan inscription – complete with uninterested bystander

Back in September, I said I would write about my trip to Pompeii, which happened in June: and now, six months later, I’m finally getting up to date!

The last time I’d been to Pompeii was back in 2001: I’d just finished the first year of my BA. So I was pretty excited to be back. And I was lucky enough to be shown around by Michele Stefanile, of the University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’, who has done a lot of work at Pompeii, in addition to his main research as an underwater archaeologist. Apart from getting us in for free, he was also an incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide – despite taking time from the last-minute preparations for his upcoming wedding.

Apart from generally reacquainting myself with the town (I’d forgotten just how big it was!), I was naturally keen to look at inscriptions, especially the Oscan ones. Because, although Pompeii is generally seen as being a quintessentially Roman town, during the Social War of the 90s and 80s BC its inhabitants were Oscan-speakers, and it actually fought against the Romans. After the war, when the Romans made it a colony, the official language of the city changed to Latin. But a lot of Oscan incriptions remained, either because they were inscribed on stones that were part of the fabric of buildings (or stones which were later re-used in buildings), or because they were painted in relatively inaccessible places and remained on show until 79 AD, when the explosion of Vesuvius preserved the town.

But there are a number of difficulties involved in finding these inscriptions, even armed with a partial map and Michele’s help. For one thing, parts of the site were closed off the day we visited, so we couldn’t see anything there. And even when you find an inscription, it’s often hard to read: the painted inscriptions are high up, and (quite rightly) covered in plexiglass to prevent damage. Unfortunately, the plexiglass also tends to prevent easy reading, especially looking from below (see above).

But the need for plexiglass protection becomes clear when you look at the following picture (courtesy of Michele). We spent a happy 20 minutes or so looking for the inscription on the column below, which is supposed to say vaamunim, which may be a borrowing of Latin uadimonium ‘bail’. But we were completely unable to find it. Even in the picture, the eye of faith is required to see a letter or two in red paint.

colonna-pompeii

 

Another unanticipated difficulty was the sheer number of people on site – while there were surprisingly few people spending entire minutes staring intently at columns (and trying to work out which was the fourth from the north), probably the biggest draw at Pompeii these days is the brothel, which Mary Beard has written about on her blog. This has arguably one of the last Oscan inscriptions scratched into the wall, but there was no chance of getting in: the queue filled the street some distance from the building itself.

Despite these issues, which served to remind me just how difficult it can be to find and read inscriptions, let alone interpret them (a recurring theme on this blog!), I had a great time in Pompeii, and am looking forward to my next visit.

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