Pompeii: Ancient City Illustrates Why Science Loves History


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Pompeii is a treasure trove of information for scientists. Copyright image by Decoded Science, all rights reserved.

What makes ancient historical sites interesting to scientists? Archaeological digs provide us with the ability to learn about people living hundreds – or even thousands – of years ago.

We can learn about how the Vikings navigated with sun-stones, and then geoscience can tell us what a sun-stone is, and how it works.

We can examine furniture and other items made with ancient wood – and learn about the trees from which they were made, and the culture surrounding the pieces.

We can even date antique porcelain via thermoluminescence.

In most cases, anthropologists and other scientists spend a lot of time and effort extrapolating information and forming theories based on a severely limited amount of information. They find a bit here, and a fragment there, and use their expertise to assemble the puzzle and determine what sort of culture created the pieces.

This is what makes Pompeii so unique – in 79 AD, nearly 2000 years ago, Mt. Vesuvius erupted, covering the site in volcanic ash. This was a tragedy for those living in Pompeii, but today, it’s a treasure trove of information for scientists.

On this map, you can see Mt Vesuvius slightly to the southeast of Naples, and the Pompeii digs to the southeast of the volcano. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Where is Pompeii?

Pompeii is located in southern Italy. As you can see in this map, Pompeii lies on the other side of Mt Vesuvius from Naples, Italy. The proximity to this volcano is what makes the site fascinating to geoscientists such as Jennifer Young. She says,

Who hasn’t heard of Vesuvius and the dramatic eruption that entombed Pompeii and Herculaneum? Fascinating as that is, it isn’t just ancient history. Vesuvius has erupted on at least 48 occasions since then, with the most recent eruption ending in 1944. There’s more to come from this big beast of a volcano — but when will it erupt again, and what might happen when it does?

(Hint – if you want to know the answers to these questions, tune in for the Decoded Pompeii project in February, 2016.)

History: Meet the Future

Terrorists have destroyed ancient monuments in Syria – Palmyra will never be the same. Will tomorrow’s generation know, or care, about the wonders of the world that may or may not still be around when they’re adults? A group of experts from educational website Decoded Science have a plan to increase interest in sites such as Pompeii by showing kids, via live-streaming video, what makes them so special.

It’s one thing to get a lecture about how ancient sites should be preserved for posterity… and another thing to look at the casts, take a virtual ‘walk’ down a street in Pompeii, learn how the ancients lived and worked and played – and to hear about why the volcano erupted, and whether it’s likely to happen again soon… and best of all, to ask questions and get them answered by an expert on the topic.

Will showing the next generation of potential scientists how much we have to learn from history help preserve ancient sites like Pompeii? It’s a gamble these scientists are willing to make.

 About the Decoded Pompeii Project

Archaeologist Natasha Sheldon is creating a Kid’s Guide to Pompeii to accompany the live tour, which is scheduled for February, 2016 – and, along with Geoscientist Jennifer Young and Materials Scientist Dr. Clara Piccirillo, is working with Education Expert Julie Lemming to create a curriculum to accompany the tour. This curriculum – and the tour itself – are an out-of-the-box way to insert ancient cultures and history into a post-holiday school slump – and get kids excited about learning again. Education Expert Julie Lemming tells us that the presentation, as a whole, is compatible with State and Federal Common Core Social Studies standards.

Decoded Science’s founder, Victoria Nicks, explains why the organization is backing this project:

Decoded Everything is a non-profit. To us, that means the organization exists to benefit others, instead of ourselves. When discussing this project with Natasha, Jennifer, Clara, and Julie, we decided that, in this case, this means finding a way to bring a love of history and science to students – who might never have the chance to go on a long-distance field trip, or to talk to a real scientist… And doing it with the bare minimum about of funding – not to enrich ourselves, but to simply reimburse for the most critical portion of the costs of providing the program – airfare, accommodations in Italy, camera work, on-site insurance and other fees, research, printing and postage fees for curriculum, and so on.

All members of this group of scientists are women. Did you intend to make this Women in STEM project?

It honestly didn’t occur to us until the project was well under way. We believe, however, that it’s important for students to see examples of both genders in science – and it’s possible that our presentation will give a new perspective to young women who might be considering a future in the sciences, but who may only see male examples in our popular culture. We strongly support STEM outreach – to all students.

What Can You Do to Help?

Decoded Everything has created a Kickstarter project to raise funds via crowdfunding, and is also accepting support via PayPal. If you would like to make history and science more accessible to the next generation, support the project today.


Science, STEM, and Virtual Learning

Is virtual learning for students the wave of the future? Only time will tell. Until we know for sure the best ways to reach out to the next generation, Decoded will continue to work to bring our expertise to the rest of the world via the Internet. Do you have a suggestion for a future Decoded outreach project? Share it in the comments section below – we’re listening!

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