Digging for Old Treasures
It's fun to imagine that from the time Pompeii was buried by a catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, it remained a gargantuan time capsule until 1748, when Rocco Gioacchino de Alcubiere came on a relic-finding mission from Spain, launching the excavation that continues into the present.
A closer look reveals that Pompeii wasn't so immaculately preserved for that long a stretch.
Shortly after the eruption, Romans dug tunnels into the site and looters sacked the buried city. The city was almost rediscovered by architect Domenico Fontana between 1594 and 1600, but Fontana didn't see the elephant in his midst. While digging tunnels as part of a civil works project to redirect the River Foce, Fontana and his crews unearthed frescoes, marble, and other ancient relics. They dismissed the artifacts as remnants from less prominent villas and moved on when their project was complete.
Though de Alcubiere was the first to excavate, he actually damaged the site by pillaging for objects to enhance King Charles III's collection of art. In 1863, Giuseppe Fiorelli whipped the excavation into shape with careful methodology, even creating the notorious plaster casts of the victims.
This story appears in the August 14, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.