The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Pompeii Puzzle

Advancing archaeological field research with digital technologies
  • Eric Poehler standing with IPad at the Pompeii site

"Becoming comfortable with a form of research and technology allows you to ask questions and begin to imagine what hasn’t been done yet. That’s the crucial step that goes past critical thinking and into invention and innovation."
- Eric Poehler

Covered in thirty feet of volcanic pumice and ash by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and buried for almost 1700 years before being unearthed in 1748, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pompeii continues to reveal its secrets. For UMass Amherst Roman archaeologist Eric Poehler (Classics), having the opportunity to introduce students to archaeological field research through the Pompeii Quadriporticus Project (PQP) and related work is a powerful way to bring the classics alive.

Poehler first visited Pompeii as a student in 1998, and after 17 consecutive summers at the site says, “the sheer joy has yet to wear off even slightly”.  The idea for the Quadriporticus project began several years ago when Poehler, working on an adjacent city block inhabited by lower middle class Pompeiians, wondered about the impact of the monumental building being constructed nearby. Thus, the Quadriporticus became the final piece of a “250 meter puzzle” to link data over a large area of the ancient city.

The Quadriporticus is one of the largest monumental buildings in the entire city of Pompeii. Documenting changes to the building and its development are key factors in Poehler’s research, as is its connection to the urban infrastructure. By studying the architectural ruins in Pompeii over several hundred years – from the second century BCE to 79 CE – Poehler’s team is documenting how early citizens used the space with little change and how Romans made major changes 200 years later, adapting to new needs. Poehler draws the analogy with the UMass Amherst campus, contrasting the current building construction against some of the original buildings now several hundred years old. As he notes, architectural alterations in buildings can reveal the historic importance of space over time.

Poehler serves as project co-director and his research uses digital technologies including the Apple iPad to quickly inventory, analyze, and interpret site information. The iPad is used to hold the database of observations and instead of recoding physical measurements on paper plans, student researchers take photos and draw onto images, saving hours of work. With the iPad they are reinventing traditional formats with more efficiency and increased data security.

“It saves us 90 percent of the time to get our work done,” Poehler says about the iPad technology. “We also have a suite of technological processes in conjunction with the iPad,” he adds. Through processes like laser scanning, photogrammetry, and ground-penetrating radar technology, Poehler and his team of researchers are able to precisely record the shape of buildings in three dimensions and investigate the architecture that lies beneath the earth’s surface without damaging either.  “We are proud to show how much can be learned before excavation,” says Poehler.

According to Poehler, the new technologies have transformed the way the team conducts research. He notes that while field research is constrained by limited time and limited funding, it presents unlimited material to mine. So while the team concentrates on collecting as much data as possible on site, it often leaves little time to synthesize the data until back in the office. With the new technologies, however, what used to be a solo activity by Poehler can now be shared by the group. Poehler notes that the students who have collected the data are the real experts and now they can participate in the data analysis and synthesis.

For students, the experience of conducting fieldwork on site of an archeological ruin breaks the shell of classroom learning, which Poehler says can sometimes feel all too mundane. Learning through hands-on research allows students to expand their perspective and think from a fresh viewpoint. One example that Poehler points to is the iconic Mount Vesuvius that looms over the site. Students visit the site of the eruption to consider how they might have reacted had they experienced the natural disaster, and to link the relevance of the volcano to Pompeii and its ruins. “Sometimes they even come up with escape routes,” Poheler says.

The coming summer marks the fourth and final year on the project that he has led with teams of UMass Amherst and Five-College students with generous support from the University, the Five-College Consortium, and private funding. Last year, the Five College Digital Humanities Project funded eight students to conduct summer field research at the project site, forming an interdisciplinary research team with majors including classics, art history, history and anthropology. Poehler is hoping for similar support this coming year.

“Adding to our history and perspectives is so important. Becoming comfortable with a form of research and technology allows you to ask questions and begin to imagine what hasn’t been done yet. That’s the crucial step that goes past critical thinking and into invention and innovation. That’s what students can get out of being part of a research project or an experiment,” says Poehler.