Sunday, 14 April 2013

Archaeo-newswatch: 'the Pompeii of the North'

I love watching how an archaeological story appears, develops and mutates within the popular press (have I mentioned that before?) and this week there was a real belter.

On Wednesday morning, all the UK newspapers and media outlets (and quite a few international news corporations) were hailing 'The Pompeii of the North' as a significant archaeological discovery: a deposit of well-preserved Roman finds unearthed from the very heart of an over-developed London.

BBC and CBS News had cameras trained upon a multitude of hard-hat wearing archaeologists, crouching, trowelling, shovelling and (in some cases) apparently hiding behind a veritable forest of defunct concrete piles.

"Archaeologists are calling it 'the Pompeii of the north'" a BBC reporter gushed enthusiastically "after they've managed to find Roman artefacts dating back nearly 2,000 years". "Over 10,000 objects have been discovered", a CBS voiceover confirmed in a different report (not saying how such a number had been calculated and whether it included every single pot sherd), "the largest number ever found on an excavation in London" whilst a reporter for the children's news programme Newsround helpfully added that the finds included "a coin" and "a shoe".

Newspaper reports were, it transpired, substantially working from the same press release, subtle variations on the theme appearing in the Independent, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times, Express and the Sun. "The discoveries have been so well preserved in the muddy waters of the lost Walbrook River that archaeologists have nicknamed the site 'the Pompeii of the North'" confirmed the Mirror, the Express also noting that "Even objects and structures made of wood and leather – which normally rarely stand the test of time – have been discovered, leading archaeologists to dub the site 'the Pompeii of the north'." 

Most commentators agreed that it wasn't just the quality of preservation that was truly gob-smacking, but also the quantity, the Express, Mail and Times confirming that "around 10,000 accessioned finds have been discovered by 60 archaeologists" (the Independent was a little less confident, observing that archaeologists had "so far discovered 8,000 objects and expect that to rise to 10,000 by the time the project is finished"). The Mail helpfully added some statistics of its own in that "approximately 3,500 tonnes of soil have been excavated by hand, which is around 21,000 barrows full".

The finds were, as far as anyone could tell, indeed quite spectacular, the anaerobic soils of the Walbrook preserving a wide and diverse range of organic material not usually encountered in urban deposits of the period. 

So far so good (and is fantastic, as always, to see archaeology in the news), but one cannot help but feel that, were it not for the successful hijacking of the name ‘Pompeii’ (a popular name at the moment given all the attention given to the British Museum’s new exhibition on the cities of Vesuvius), this particular story would sadly have not got the attention that it did.

One thing that no one could seem to clarify was precisely who had first coined the attention grabbing headline 'Pompeii of the North', no specific archaeological name being provided as a source.

The Museum of London Press Release carefully avoided attributing the phrase to anyone in particular, preferring to cite the key archaeological highlights:

·     Wooden buildings that survive to shoulder height

·     A rare inked writing tablet revealing an affectionate letter

·     A totally unparalleled and mysterious leather object depicting a gladiator fighting mythical creatures

·     A complete and exceptionally beautiful amber Gladiator amulet

·     The largest assemblage of fist and phallus good luck charms from one site (not mentioned, I must add, in the Newsround report)

·     A previously unexcavated section of the Temple of Mithras

·     Rubbish and ritual deposits from the Walbrook river, including Roman coins

·     A Roman well into which a pewter hoard, coins and cow skulls were thrown as part of a ritual

·     Complex Roman drainage systems used to discharge waste from industrial buildings
All archaeological sites are important but sometimes it's difficult to successfully convey that importance to the press; sometimes you need a catchphrase - an emotive tag-line that immediately grabs a journalist by the throat and forces them to pay attention. 'Pompeii of the North' is one such headline and boy did it work.  

Of course, once you sit down and think about it, this particular buzz-phrase doesn't bear close scrutiny (as several non-archaeologists have already pointed out to me). Yes, London is, in a strict geographical sense, to the North of Pompeii and the site under investigation is indeed urban and predominantly Roman in date (albeit 200 years or so later than its Italian counterpart), but there the similarity fades rather swiftly. 

The defining factor in the preservation of the London site, namely water, is, as far as I recall, noticeable for its complete absence in the preservation of cultural remains at Pompeii, the silt from the Walbrook River being laid down over centuries and not in a single, catastrophic event (forever entombing the inhabitants of London under metres of alluvial mud). The well-preserved artefacts from London were, furthermore, introduced to the silt over a very long period of time (rather than being sealed by the river as the volcanic ash managed to spectacularly achieve at Pompeii). Having also been to the Pompeii exhibition at the BM (an amazing, entrancing, heart-rending and thoroughly enthralling collection of material which needs to be seen to be believed), I can also confirm that there are no equivalent examples of painted wall plaster, 

well-crafted mosaics

or pieces of marble statuary depicting satyrs investigating the nether regions of willing goats 

from the 'Pompeii' of London. 

Other than that, both sites are exactly not quite dissimilar.

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