Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Should Pompeii have a Theme Park?

You might have heard me on BBCRadioFour recently, arguing for an historical theme park version of Pompeii to be built near the site. Why on earth should we do such a thing? Here are ten reasons I think it would be a great idea.

1. To preserve the ruins
Two to three million tourists pass through Pompeii every year. It is wonderful that there is such an interest in ancient history, but the sheer volume of people is slowly but surely destroying the remains, especially mosaics and frescoes. After my interview, someone tweeted this: thought your theme park idea interesting on BBCr4today - but would people visit theme-park and abandon Pompeii? My answer was: Yes! Only the keenest would visit the real Pompeii & it would ease wear & tear. By making our "Living Pompeii" more attractive to young, fun-loving and casual tourists it would make space in the real ruins for scholars, students and super keen tourists. They could in theory visit one or the other, or both.

2. To let visitors SEE ancient Pompeii
re-enactor girl rides horse at Archeon
When I say "Theme Park" I do not mean Disneyland (though there's plenty right with Disneyland) but something more like Archeon, the wondeful Dutch Historical Theme Park near Amsterdam. They have three periods: Prehistorical, Medieval and Roman, and all three are brilliantly reproduced. They aren't just fronts, but buildings you can walk into and look around, e.g. the baths, an arena for gladiatorial combat and a roman style villa. For Pompeii we could replicate one of the most famous streets, the Via dell'Abbondanza, with election graffiti, frescoes, shop signs, and upper stories as well as ground floors. Fountains would bubble and some could overflow, showing tourists why the famous stepping stones existed in such a dry climate!

3. To let visitors TOUCH ancient Pompeii. 
"Vespasian" & "Lupus"
"Don't touch!" is a refrain often heard on archaeological sites, and quite right. (I was at unpoliced Herculaneum a few years ago and kids were swinging on the columns) But what if kids were allowed or even encouraged to touch bronze statues, marble facing, iron gates, frescoed walls, granite paving stones? What if they could dip their hands in full fountains or stroke hand woven rugs for sale? What if they could recline in a litter, the comfortable means of transportation for lazy rich people?

4. To let visitors TASTE ancient Pompeii
illustration from brochure of now defunct Magna Roma
Food, glorious food! Ancient Romans loved street snacks: chickpea pancakes, spicy sausages wrapped in vine leaves, pistachio nuts in papyrus cones. (You can still buy roast chestnuts in paper cones by the Spanish Steps). So why not have a caupona or two? Or three? You can serve authentic Roman fast food to the tourists. We could start a new craze for the favourite drink of the Roman Legionary. Posca is vinegar-tinted water. It is extremely refreshing and the vinegar kills most bacteria, so it's healthy.  For a few years there existed in Rome a restaurant called Magna Roma. Run by a retired Etruscologist, it served "authentic ancient food". Nothing revolting like fried sows' nipples or stuffed dormice, but unusual meals like a gustatio of small fishes formed of chopped chicken liver and served on "lettuce waves" (the Romans loved presenting one food as another) followed by sea-bass in oenogarum sauce with plums and carraway seeds and finished off with a mensa secunda of celery poached in honey. No forks. Only spoons, knives, fingers and napkins. This could be a proper sit down restaurant like Magna Roma, which failed due to a combination of bad publicity and poor location.

5. To let visitors SMELL ancient Pompeii
a priest examines the omens
Dare I suggest that toilets at our replica Pompeii be like the ancient foricae from the Roman world? If so, tourists would enter through a revolving wooden door and find themselves in an airy room with a marble bench around three sides of the wall, with holes on top (for the obvious) and holes at the front (for the bottom-wiper sponge-stick) but no dividing walls and no doors so you sat right next to your friend and did what you had to do! Maybe there could be two versions of toilets in our replica Pompeii: the authentic Roman foricae and Roman-ish but private cubicles for the modest. Other smells could come from the food being cooked at cauponas and tabernas (see above). We could have authentic fullers, with people stamping wool in vats full of urine. Don't like that idea? How about this: gardens! Yes, we could plant fragrant gardens based on Pompeian templates. Thanks to modern archeology, we know exactly what plants they put in their inner gardens and orchards. Maybe the stalls could sell fruit in season: apricots, peaches, watermelon, apples, figs, olives, nuts, mulberries... That won't have changed in 2000 years.

6. To let visitors EXPERIENCE ancient Pompeii - It goes without saying that there will be gladiatorial combats. But what about a priest giving the morning or evening offering? A sale of slaves fresh off the boat? An orator defending a public case in the forum? The town crier announcing the time and various events in a big voice. A poetry reading? Even a more-or-less-realistic session at the baths!

7. To let visitors INTERACT with ancient Romans
a runaway slave
But who will be cooking the food, selling the goods, fighting the combats and reading the poetry, you ask. Re-enactors! In the world today there is a huge number of people who dress up as people from the past. These are men, women and children who leave their ordinary lives behind for a weekend or two per year to dress up in ancient garb and become someone else. Archeon theme park invites various re-enactment groups from all over Europe to come. They get room and board, but pay for their own travel and give their time for free. Each of them is an expert in their own field. As an historical author, I rely heavily on input from living history actors, as they like to call themselves. Some people think re-enactors should "get a life". I think re-enactors have at least two lives: their day-to-day life and their ancient alter-ego! I recently posted a POLL on my Facebook page, asking re-enactors why they gave up precious time to dress up and "inhabit" the past. The top three answers were 1. To learn more about their period, 2. To inspire children to study history, 3. To share their knowledge with others. All most commendable. It's great to stop and see how a mosaic-maker does it. Or watch a fresco-painter at work. Or ask a runaway slave what is branded on her forehead!

8. To let visitors TAKE AWAY SOUVENIRS from the replica Pompeii, not the original 
Instead of selling tacky souvenirs, the re-enactors and craftsmen could sell good quality replicas of real Roman artefacts. These could range from something as simple and cheap as a wax tablet and wooden stylus, to an amethyst signet ring carved with Castor and Pollux, the heavenly twins. Kids, teachers and researchers could by bronze strigils, styli, fibulae, hair pins and oil-lamps. They could buy rugs woven in the loom or mosaics made by hand. Imitation coins, jewelry, votive objects and tools all teach us more about the Romans. I adore replica artefacts and so do children at the schools I visit. There is something very powerful about handing a real object from the past, but a well-made imitation can be almost as inspiring. You can see my top twelve favourite replica artefacts HERE.

9. To channel casual tourists away from the fragile ruins.
I mentioned it above, but I want to say it again: with attractions such as the ones just listed, energetic school children and enthusiastic tourists would have a totally authentic immersive feel of Pompeii. They will then understand more about the actual remains when they see them. IF they see them. If they are happy with their ersatz experience, there is no need for them to drag around the real ruins. After a fun but exhausting day at replica Pompeii, only the keenest will want to visit the real site. And I think that is OK.

10. To fund more policing and preservation of the ancient site
author Caroline Lawrence tries out a litter at Archeon
In an ideal world, the "Pompeii Theme Park" would make a massive amount of money, just like Disneyland. It would have so much going for it from the start: a guaranteed volume of tourists, the fame, the fortune. This profit could then be channelled back to upkeep of the theme park but more importantly, to the real ruins themselves. One of the great things about a replica theme park is that it could also be hired out to film and documentary companies, like Empire Studios in Tunisia or Boyana Studios in Bulgaria, where the Roman Mysteries TV series was filmed. Also, you could have night-time events. One of my Twitter followers suggested semi-erotic adult night-time events with dancing girls and peeled grapes à la Up Pompeii or my favourite ancient Roman film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Brilliant!

And so, upon that note of peeled grapes and increased revenue for the real Pompeii, I rest my case.


P.S. Five fascinating facts I learned from Prof. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill at our Pompeii Panel on Weds 27 July 2011.

1. Pompeii has been "preserved" in a variety of ways over the past century and a half. These methods of preservation reveal Pompeii's more recent past.

2. It is not the volume of tourist traffic that is hurting Pompeii most, it is the lack of roofing.

3. The sections of Pompeii which are closed to the public are often in worse condition than the heavily visited parts.

4. Some streets of Pompeii were destroyed by allied bombs in WWII. Prof. Wallace-Hadrill says one of these ruined streets could be rebuilt as an historical theme park and populated by re-enactors.

5. Any schemes we propose are theoretical anyway as we have no power to implement them. Pompeii's preservation lies in the hands of the Italian government.

Getty Villa in Malibu at dusk
P.S. Would anyone object if it looked like the Getty Villa? No, but they might not be happy if it ended up like the slightly scruffy Pharaonic Village in Cairo. 


  1. In my opinion this, in theory, is a really good idea, but practically I see little point in it. Firstly the government would have to be convinced to spend the millions of dollars necessary in order to build this theme park, and from what I understand of Pompeii the government is already unwilling to spend enough to preserve the existing ancient site. Secondly, I've heard that Pompeii's amphitheatre recently got restored (don't even get me started on the ethical issues of that), but if effort is already being made to restore Pompeii, then a theme park just doesn't seem to add much. And thirdly, to me nothing could be more authentic than the actual city itself, and putting in the smells and sights and whatnot into a theme park just wouldn't generate the same impact.

    Although... it seems Mt. Vesuvius has been overdue for an eruption for a while now, which renders all these arguments useless. Maybe we should just let the city be re-buried, and have humans stop destroying the ruins.

  2. Yes, the biggest problem with building an Archeon type theme park near Pompeii is that it would be in ITALY not HOLLAND. :P

  3. i listened to this on the radio with great interest. i wonder if hadrill would have had the same reaction if the deliberately provocative term 'theme park' had not been used?

    the problem with academic funding, especially in archaeology, is that it is full of scholars and not business men. they do not understand how to make money. it is time archaeology stopped depending on handouts from the public sector and rich private donors (of which there are getting fewer and fewer) and actually learnt to make some money. if purists like hadrill turn up their nose at ideas like this, based on nothing other than principle and the deluded notion that funding is always going to be there for everything that needs it, then archaeology will surely dig it's own grave as funding gets cut over and over again until there is precious little left. at least with responsible private investors, a percentage of profit could be put back into funding actual sites without having an impact on exisiting funding or disturbing any archaeology.

  4. Thanks for your post. We had the panel this evening and actually Andrew Wallace-Hadrill said he thought the idea of a "re-constructed street" was a good one and he knew exactly where to put it, right in Pompeii where a street had been bombed by allies in WWII. Hadrill was very gracious and wise and explained that Pompeii has TONS of money but squanders it in unwise ways. Everyone had originally been encouraged to present strongly differing views, to keep the debate interesting, but by the end we were all pretty much in agreement with one another. One thing we all agree on is that we love Pompeii (and Herculaneum) and want the best for them!

  5. What a brilliant idea! Preserving the real Pompeii while giving tourists the experience of it. A whole new level of interactive learning...

  6. It sounds like a wonderful idea! I'd absolutely rather go to a place like that than a Disney theme park, hands down. And I'd be thrilled to have the full experience of Pompeii (though I'd probably go to see the real thing too).

  7. Andrea9:38 PM

    Personally I don't think it should. I think it would be like cashing in on the tragedy. Myself and my husband have visited Pompeii and found it very thought provoking. Why Have it as a theme park why not have the 'real' experience?? I would rather take my children round the ruins and let them use their imagination rather there be things put in front if them.

  8. Anonymous9:38 AM

    The theme park seems a great idea to me. You might want to take your children there, but the truth is, unless your children are interested in it themselves, it is not going to stand out in their minds. Most children would be much more interested in a theme park environment, and they can do whatever they like in one. But in ancient Pompeii, children and adults touching the ruins are damaging them. In my opinion, let the less interested tourists visit a theme park, so that we can preserve ancient Pompeii for just a little longer. As a side note, do parents actually let their children swing off columns in an archeological site??? Such people are a perfect example why the human race is a blight on this earth.