plaster cast of skeleton from Pompeii

An archaeologist dusts the plastered bodies of a woman and her companion, discovered with several other unearthed skeletons in Pompeii, Italy, Sept. 6, 1991.

AP Photo

Pompeii Takes the Prize

To understand the significance of Pompeii, let's revisit the checklist we introduced earlier and answer the first few questions.

Does the find amaze with its details, clarity or size?

The sheer size of the Pompeian ruins is astonishing. The city's ancient walls surround 163 acres of land, 1,500 buildings and miles of roads. Only a third of the city remains buried, although most of the territory outside the walls -- Pompeii's suburbs, if you will -- has never been touched. The areas that have been excavated reveal amazing details, all perfectly preserved by the fine volcanic powder that showered down from Vesuvius. Archaeologists have found mosaics, frescoes and statues in perfect condition, glass jars still holding fruit, brick ovens loaded with loaves of bread and graffiti scribbled across the walls of Pompeian homes.

Does the find advance the field of archaeology in a significant way?

Archaeologists have been working without interruption at Pompeii since the mid-18th century, making it the longest continually excavated site in the world. In fact, when scientists first began uncovering the ruins, they ushered in the modern science of archaeology. Over the years, virtually every technique, tool or technology introduced to the field has been tested at Pompeii. For example, Giuseppe Fiorelli, the Italian archaeologist who first organized and managed the excavations at Pompeii, developed the technique of making plaster casts of bodies entombed in the ash. Fiorelli was able to create casts revealing remarkable details, even facial expressions.

Does the find revise our thinking on a particular aspect of history?

No site provides more information about ancient Greco-Roman life than Pompeii. In essence, an entire ancient city was frozen in time, allowing researchers to study every aspect of Roman culture. Much of the early archaeological work focused on the physical structure of the city, including its public buildings and private homes. This research has made it possible to trace four centuries of Roman architecture and even urban planning.

Over the years, archaeologists have also delved into of the social and religious lives of Pompeii's residents. For example, scientists know now that most of the city's inhabitants weren't wealthy homeowners loaded with jewels and expensive artwork. Most lived humble lives in modest homes. Many were slaves, who served their masters faithfully until the eruption began and, in some cases, perished with them while trying to escape.