Pompeii: Digging the details with Jasmine Khelil

Jasmine Khelil is currently a second year History and Classics student at the University of Edinburgh but has had fantastic experiences doing archaeological fieldwork. She has had the opportunity to dig at some of the most prized archaeological sites in the world, such as Pompeii, and now shares her advice and experience. 

Q1: How did you first get into archaeology? 

I was first introduced to archaeology when I was six years old. My mum is from Tunisia, and I lived for six years in Carthage. So when, for example, I would be walking to my old elementary school, I would go through the ruins of Carthage, so that was the first time that I actually got introduced to archaeology. I already knew that I was passionate about this subject and wanted to learn more about the Roman ruins in Carthage, and archaeology in general. 

Q2: Tell me about your first archaeological dig experience. How did you come across it and what did you get up to? 

My first dig was when I was 14 years old. My mum knew the director of Utica, a site, I think, 30 kilometres from Carthage. It was a very famous city in Roman times because it was one of the only cities that sided with Rome in the Punic wars, so that was very interesting to dig because Utica has a Phoenician site as well as the Roman site. That was the first moment that I actually pursued my career as an archaeologist. I remember first of all working at the Phoenician site, which was very interesting because we had to excavate the tombs and we found loads of children’s burials. That only made us think that the whole theory behind the Phoenicians that settled in Carthage was actually true – that they cremated children for Tanit, a Phoenician goddess. This find meant that the sacrificial burials could maybe be true, so that was a very interesting site, especially to excavate as it has loads of bioarchaeological features as well as fieldwork. 

Q3: Most recently you have dug in Pompeii, which is the archaeological dream. How did you find out about it? 

I remember seeing on the website of the British School at Rome that a British team in collaboration with a Spanish team at the University of Valencia was digging in Pompeii. They had both already been digging for years, I think since 2017, in Porta Sarno in the east port of Pompeii. They already found loads of bodies of people who were trying to escape Pompeii when Vesuvius exploded, which was very interesting. Apart from that, they also found a huge Necropolis just outside of the east city gates, and that was discovered first of all in the 1990s, but they only started excavating it in 2017. When I saw they were looking for archaeologists to excavate for the 2021 season, I already felt that it would be my dream to excavate in Pompeii, so I applied for it and a few months later I got an acceptance letter, and I was very excited. Digging in Pompeii was already a dream. It feels like all eyes are just on you while you’re digging in one of the most amazing sites in the world, especially because all the Roman ruins are so intact, which makes it so special – to witness how the ancient Romans were living in their city literally frozen in time. You only need to remove some lapilli, which is volcanic rock from Vesuvius, and afterwards it’s just as if you’re living in the city almost as it was 2000 years ago. 

Q4: Were you digging on multiple sites or just one patch? What was your favourite thing that you found? 

I think my favourite find was when I was excavating in the tomb of Marcos Venerio Secundio. He was a slave who climbed up the social ladder in Pompeii, as he was first born as a slave and later was emancipated. He became so rich that he was able to fund four days of plays for the public in Ancient Greek and Latin, which was a huge deal. We found an inscription, which is very interesting because before we opened the tomb, we didn’t really know anything about Marcus Venerio. We already knew because of the frescoes outside of the tomb that it must be a very wealthy man because the tomb was quite big, but we translated the Latin inscription and that told us a lot more about him. On the inside part of the tomb, we had already found two grave urns, and one of them contained female bones, which was very interesting. We discovered that that was his wife, so in the last week of our excavations we decided to open the tomb since the archaeological park had enough funding to actually do the restoration of the tomb itself. So, we opened the tomb, and I think that was one of the most exciting discoveries, as we found the whole body completely intact and it was so well-preserved that even the ear was still there, it had skin on top of it. It was insane because you could even see his white hair coming out of his skull – I’ve never seen such an intact body in the whole of my archaeological career, which was so fantastic. We also found a few coins next to his body, which we dated to 63AD, so the time of Nero’s reign. And because there was an image of Nero on the coins, we worked out that the tomb must have been built before he actually died, which made it even more interesting, perhaps. 

Q5: What advice would you give to aspiring archaeologists, whether they are already doing a degree or whether they considering a degree in archaeology or classics, or to people who are even unsure what path to take? 

I think I would definitely say to just pursue your dreams. Even in archaeology it is sometimes really difficult to actually find a proper job. I’ve had loads of people in my life who told me that I wouldn’t really be able to do anything with archaeology, but I think the opposite was proven perhaps after the excavations in Pompeii. I would definitely say that even if you do not study archaeology but it is one of your passions definitely pursue it outside of your course, as archaeology is so easily combined with everything else in your life. You don’t need to be an archaeologist by trade with a degree to be able to dig. For example, I study History and Classics at the moment and I’ve done loads of fieldwork before even starting university, so I would definitely say that if you’re even interested in starting fieldwork, you should definitely take the opportunity if you have it. 

Interview conducted and transcribed by Fiona Macrae

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