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Pompeii Faces Destruction - Again

New threat comes not from ancient volcano, but tourists, thieves, and weather

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Pompeii, one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in the world, is crumbling and at risk of being destroyed for a second time.

Culture Minister Walter Veltroni recently dubbed it "the most endangered archaeological site in Italy."

The danger this time is not from nearby Mount Vesuvius, which buried the Roman city in AD 79, but steady erosion by tourists and the elements. Pompeii is Italy's favorite tourist destination, according to the Ministry of Culture. In 1997 alone, close to 2 million people visited the site.

But popularity has its price. "The conservation problems have mounted up to such an extent that unless something radical is done pretty rapidly, there's a grave risk of irreversible damage," warns Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of the British School of Archaeology, History, and Letters in Rome. Professor Wallace-Hadrill is leading an excavation project at Pompeii.

In the 250 years since excavations first began, neglect, poor management, and vandalism have taken their toll, he says. The decay is manifest in the number of Pompeii's houses that have been closed to the public, mainly due to unstable walls. Only 14 remain open, compared with 64 in 1956. At present just 20 of the more than 108 excavated acres are accessible to the public.

"Since an earthquake in 1980, a large part of the city has been declared off limits," says Irene Bragantini, an Italian archaeologist and Pompeii expert. "This has led to an increasingly difficult situation because the growing population of tourists is forced to visit the same areas all the time."

The tourists don't seem to mind, however. "This place is incredible. I can sense the way people used to live here. I can walk along their streets and into their homes," says Leonardo, from Argentina.

Few tourists are fully aware of the history and sheer size of Pompeii, says tour guide Renato Riccio. "They arrive and immediately want to see everything, they ask one question after the other.... But after a while they get tired because Pompeii is huge," he says.

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