2000s Archive

Under the Volcano

Originally Published December 2002
A volunteer vacation in Pompeii involves maps, measurements, and…paradise lost.

There is a strike in Italy this morning. The various unions representing the guards at Pompeii have decided that they are overworked, are aggrieved by capitalism, or just want the morning off. So Europe's premier archaeological site will not open. The aggravation will end at noon, they announce, at which time life will return to normal.

For visitors, this is dispiriting. But for one group in particular, the problem seems dire. The 15 members of the Earthwatch Institute's volunteer research team, Food and Drink in Ancient Pompeii: Team II, are up, having showered, eaten breakfast, packed lunches, tucked pencils into their shirt pockets, and donned short pants. But there's nowhere to go. They have paid almost $3,000 a person, carved out precious vacation time, and come to one of the most beautiful corners of the world in order to survey ancient buildings, take the dimensions of dining rooms, and sketch kitchen hearths. A collective sense of doom descends upon the group, as if a teacher had announced to the whiz kids in the room, "Sorry, no pop test."

"It could be worse," announces Dr. Robert L. Vann, one of the leaders. "You could be a tourist." The word drips with condescension. "Imagine if you had come all the way to Italy, and this was your only chance to see Pompeii?" Cheered by this bit of schadenfreude, the group exhales a collective sigh of relief and settles into the hostel, preparing to spend the rest of this radiant Italian morning entering data into a computer.

"Ah, life in Italy," muses one volunteer.

Ah, life on a volunteer vacation. The temptation might be to say, "This is not your mother's package tour to Italy." But the truth is, this is your mother's package tour to Italy. And your grandmother's. And your little sister's. Over the past quarter century, a new type of leisure activity has sprung up in which hardworking, well-meaning, eager-to-please Americans-and their counterparts around the world-spend their meager vacation time, and their own money, to volunteer for missions in every hostel, pup tent, and grass hut on the planet. It's the Peace Corps meets Club Med.

This particular mission is sponsored by Massachusetts-based Earthwatch Institute, one of the gray-haired pioneers of the volunteer movement (our Birkenstocks are older than yours!), which began work in 1971 and this year boasts that it will support "138 expeditions in 48 countries on 6 continents," encompassing some 4,000 volunteers. The 15 volunteers on this program are remarkably diverse—a retired teacher, an M.B.A. student, a secretary from Utah—and very well meaning. Going on one of these trips is a bit like going on vacation with a bunch of Al Gores; terms like biocultural diversity and systemic climate flow freely. Inevitably, though, a high-school-band mentality sets in: I almost had to flee the first night at dinner—risotto with mushrooms and pizza Margherita—when the volunteers held a competition to see who could suspend a spoon from his nose the longest.

But in time what emerges is a sort of blood-drive spirit of giving something back, and the earnest sensitivity becomes admirable, even endearing. These are not shop-till-you-droppers; these are people who care. "I feel like doing something worthwhile," says David Monsees, a divorced 59-year-old sociologist with the National Institutes of Health who had brought his college-age son and daughter. "If I had followed my heart instead of worrying about starving, I would have become an archaeologist. Now, all these years later, I get a chance." This is his fourth Earthwatch excursion, and he plans to pursue a master's degree in archaeology when he retires.

In this program, at least, a volunteer vacation is much more volunteer than vacation. Monsees and his children work very hard. Team II is divided into four groups, whose job is to locate, map, photograph, and draw architectural details of the ancient city. It's all part of a six-year study to understand the daily eating and drinking rituals that were a part of everyday life in Pompeii at the time of its destruction.

The city of Pompeii is in the heart of Campania's fertile Sarno plain, bordering the Gulf of Naples, halfway between the grandeur of Naples and the honeymoon paradise of the Amalfi Coast. Once a Greek and Etruscan settlement, Pompeii was conquered by Rome in 89 B.C. A decade later, it was a thriving port with 15,000 residents. Grand villas with prancing fauns and elaborate gardens shared walls with cramped houses. An enormous stone amphitheater held bloody gladiatorial contests; baths offered cold, tepid, and hot water; mansions boasted licentious images of naked men and women in Kama Sutra-like poses. Pompeii could have been Babylon in its Dionysian excess.

Until…On August 24, A.D. 79, the nearby volcano Vesuvius, which had been erupting off and on for 16,000 years, spewed a deadly plume of smoke, ash, and lava. But it was the monstrous pelting of gray ash chunks, known as pumice lapilli, raining down on Pompeii and the smaller town of Herculaneum, that entombed them both.

Pliny the younger describes the plume of debris as having the shape of an umbrella pine tree, rising up like a trunk, then branching out. "Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: A dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood." Grasping his mother's hand, he writes, "We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell; not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room. You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives…there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying."

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