Saving the Villa of the Mysteries

The moment the Villa of the Mysteries was discovered in spring 1909, it was at risk. Once protected by a layer of at least 30 feet of the volcanic ash and soil that had fallen on Pompeii in A.D. 79, the villa’s stunning decoration was immediately exposed to potential damage from the elements and earthquakes, one of which occurred a bit more than a month after excavations began. As each wheelbarrow of debris was removed, revealing columns, artifacts, mosaics, and frescoes, the threat increased. It soon became clear that the house and its vibrant paintings were extraordinarily vulnerable, not only to sun, rain, and wind, but also to theft. Just three weeks after the discovery of one of the most stunning finds in the famed ancient city, excavations were halted and the focus shifted to protection and conservation. It would take archaeologists two more decades to completely excavate the property.

For more than a century, there have been many efforts, some successful, some less so, to conserve the villa’s walls, floors, and frescoes. Now, several teams of archaeologists, architects, chemists, and physicists have embarked on a yearlong project, using both time-tested methods and innovative technologies, to remedy the damage done by earlier conservators and by time, and to restore the villa and its remarkable interior once again.

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