The Feedback Loop of Belongings
“Communities possess no more intelligence than is contained in their objects.”
Pierre Lévy, Becoming Virtual
In the long-term wake of a geological catastrophe like the volcanic eruption that concealed Pompeii for 1500 years, researchers approach the site using archaeology, osteology, metallurgical analysis and other forensic methodologies. They uncover and verify the remains of bodies and objects that may have lain for centuries, irretrievable and invisible, underneath the surface of the ground. At Pompeii, combinations of volcanic effusions, which formed somewhere between 19 to 23 feet of hardened volcanic ash, have acted as a cache more effective than any contemporary technological preservation aid. The sudden disappearances and returns experienced by the objects recovered from the site invite us to consider structures of loss and recovery. An object can be lost under innumerable circumstances, becoming subject to, say, a natural disaster or a simple misplacement; an act of theft or the violence of warfare or censorship. Time and nature govern when and how the recovery will take place. At such excavation sites, there is no initial hierarchy among the objects uncovered. Everything found during an archaeological dig has the same value. If a body appears, perhaps there is jewellery nearby. The researcher takes photos and then categorises the remains afterwards.
Jewellery found in the Archeological Park of Pompeii until 1997
- Jewellery Found Near Skeletal Remains
Data sourced from: D’Ambrosio, Antonio, “Analisi complessiva,” in I Monili Dall’Area Vesuviana, edited by Ernesto De Carolis, vol. 6 (Rome: L’erma di Bretschneider, 1997), Ministero per i Beni Culturali e Ambientali – Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei.
Once regained through excavation, various processes involving time, social life, science, and emotion simultaneously organize the objects. Considering object loss and recovery opens a window onto further dynamic negotiations—between potential owner and acquirer, time period and place, economic circumstance and political environment—while reminding us of the industries of the objects’ production. Regardless of the circumstances of the loss, each recovered object retains embedded notions of chance, purpose and human efforts that across time rupture loss towards a perpetual recirculation of sentiments.
In Pompeii, two centuries’ worth of excavations have exposed hundreds of fragmented possibilities of the every day, uncovering a range of public and personal belongings. Most objects that survived the tremendous temperatures from Vesuvius’s multi-day eruptions were made from gold, bronze, iron, stone and glass—all of them capable of surviving incineration. During the eruption period, temperatures in the city reached 754° Fahrenheit. Gold has a melting point of 1,948° Fahrenheit and silver at 1,763° Fahrenheit. In Pompeii, gold accounts for 70% of the jewellery found while silver pieces are just under 12%. Silver was a less popular material as it tarnished the skin.
Jewellery in particular retains its delicate details. The intimacy and familiarity embodied by jewellery provide data about the personal taste, aesthetics, and class of those who resided in Pompeii, while also suggesting the placement of ornamented detail on the body. Historians have documented characteristics repeated among these bracelets, rings, and gemstones. Serpents, an ornamental symbol across a wide range of cultures, were in Roman visual culture understood as symbols of powers protecting the spirit and family, their eyes often set with red-coloured gems. One of the only text inscriptions recovered from jewellery in Pompeii is on a bracelet in the shape of a snake, and it reads: “Dominus ancillae suae” (“From the Master to his slave girl”). Some formal characteristics repeat, like the gold bands with gemstones in them whose style we still see today. Others are surprising outliers, like the valuable long gold chains which were not found in houses, but rather in environments inhabited by sex workers catering to the local population.
 D’Ambrosio, Antonio, “Analisi complessiva,” in I monili dall’area vesuviana, edited by Ernesto De Carolis, vol. 6 (Rome: L’erma di Bretschneider, 1997), 21–23. Ministero per i Beni Culturali e Ambientali – Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei.
The panoply of found jewellery helps to bring us closer to understanding the alchemy of the incident while documenting common traits in personal possessions. Present-day accumulations of lost jewellery parallel those that have resurfaced in Pompeii from 79 A.D. Panorama 94 features a collection of rings that were lost in the NYC public transit system, found by travellers over the course of the years 2016-2018. Ninety-four rings accumulated in the transit system’s lost and found and were later placed in a public auction held by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. 60 Detected Rings (1991-2021) shows another collection of rings found through one woman’s routine metal detecting on the shorelines of beaches in Atlantic City, New Jersey—a notable casino town. Over thirty years, sixty rings were accumulated. Unlike Pompeii, the history of the jewellery’s disengagement from its owner was not catastrophic. Nonetheless, each finding is a result that takes place within a city and describes a dynamic system of loss and reclaiming. While the type of object remains constant, the variables are the conditions of place and method of discovery. In each case, the time of loss is generally unknown and is newly marked through the memory of the individual who had discovered the object (this is also true of archaeological finds) either by way of happenstance or with intention. The sets indicate the aesthetic values inherent to the time period each ring circulated. Each circumstance of loss reinforces the ageless repetition and causal disengagement that precious objects of sentiment have.
Contemporary human emotion motivates a more recent circulation of extracted objects. Mailed letters holding fragments of Pompeii from previous visits are returned to the archaeological park as apologetic returns of stolen material. Over the years, dozens of tourists have taken small objects from the numerous rooms housed within the ruins. According to the predominantly handwritten letters that accompany each object in an attempt to provide insight into their misbehaviours, it seems their initial actions had come from a desire to physically own pieces of history. The guilt they felt from having removed something sacred from where it belonged, in some cases, eventually led to a belief that they had been cursed as punishment or would inevitably experience bad luck if they did not take action to rectify such wrongdoing. In these acts of restoration, little pieces of volcanic rock, stones, and bits of marble cubes lifted from mosaic flooring turn into magnets that somehow find their way back to their point of origin.
Our sheer distance from the tragedy that occurred at Pompeii allows us to re-enter the city without concern or nostalgia. But what kind of experience does this invite? In all its compounded chaos, the city regenerates—its eternally fractalized state allows for a protean reclaiming. Holistic understandings of Pompeii have caused dynamic relationships to the site to evolve over time: the linear archaeological archive, looting, personal affinity, and ownership have all claimed and organized the city’s materials.
Defined by a day’s destruction, tourism continually nourishes the economy of modern-day Pompeii outside of the park. Tourists transform into spectators and listeners while the disinterred city incorporates contemporary infrastructural and architectural additions to cater to their daily arrival. Each day 15,000 tourists are welcomed into the site, close to the same number of civilians that once populated the ancient town. One group is curiously preserved by the same natural forces that destroyed them. The other huddles around tour guides, hoping that certain knots of speculation will untangle into a string of chronological events. Before long they are ready to return to present-day conditions.