In 1943, Allied forces received reports of a German division encamped in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. “Obliged to treat [the ruins] as a military objective,” according to a November 1943 article in the Times of London, the Allies launched a sweeping assault, dropping 165 bombs during nine separate air raids. As it turned out, though, the intel was simply a rumor. In actuality, the Axis powers’ presence in Pompeii and its surrounding neighborhoods was limited to just two anti-aircraft guns and several trucks.
Although the majority of these World War II bombs have since been located and deactivated, a new investigation published in Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano posits that at least seven to 10 unexploded bombs remain scattered across a still-to-be excavated section of the archaeological site. (As Ars Technica’s Kiona N. Smith explains, this figure is based on the assumption that some 8 to 10 percent of bombs dropped during the war struck the ground without exploding; the estimate also factors in the number of explosives found and defused at Pompeii over the years.)
Speaking with Il Fatto’s Enrico Fierro and Ferruccio Sansa, archaeologist Antonio De Simone describes two unexploded bombs unearthed by his team during excavations in 1986.
“We were there with our chisels and shovels, slowly lifting a handful of earth at a time, and suddenly we found the bombs, under our feet,” De Simone says. “... One had already exploded and was reduced to fragments. The other, unfortunately, had not. It was perfectly intact.”
According to a statement released by Pompeii officials, the explosives do not pose an active threat to tourists or workers conducting excavations. As Massimo Osanna, director of the Pompeii Archaeological Park, tells the Telegraph’s Josephine McKenna, government regulations require experts to work with military engineers to clear sections of the site before excavations can begin.
Osanna adds, “Two years ago, we spent two months actively monitoring and clearing Zone 5,” that’s where the Great Pompeii project—an archaeological dig that has yielded finds including mythological frescoes, a “fast food” counter and the skeletons of victims killed during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.—is taking place.
While it’s true that an unexploded bomb detonated at Pompeii some 30 years ago, Osanna says such an occurrence would be “impossible … under the [current] regulations.”
Per the Guardian’s Lorenzo Tondo, archaeologists have already excavated 44 of Pompeii’s 66 total hectares. But 22 hectares remain to be surveyed, and Il Fatto, citing a bombing map created by Italy’s National Aerial Photographic Archive, posits that the remaining unexploded bombs lie hidden throughout the area.
Tracking down unexploded bombs is a slow and expensive process. According to Il Fatto, military engineers must proceed meter by meter, conducting tests with tools such as magnetometers before drilling into the ground.
De Simone further explains that the procedure used to remove bombs clashes with archaeologists’ preferred excavation conditions, adding, “Those who search and defuse the devices proceed with breaking the ground, a procedure much more invasive than what we archaeologists use.”
But the work is important; Ars Technica’s Smith writes that bombs otherwise would pose a threat to the “otherwise well-preserved ancient city,” as well as archaeologists “who might inadvertently dig them up.”
Pompeii isn’t the only Italian site littered with unexploded bombs, artillery shells, land mines and grenades. To date, Il Fatto reports, engineers estimate that they’ve only found and defused some 60 percent of World War II bombs left in the country.