To Save a Ruin, Send in the Sheep

POMPEII, Italy — On a bright morning in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, a stout shepherd with a wool sweater stretched over his belly whistled and clicked and steered his flock of sheep to a grassy slope above Pompeii’s frescoed ruins. He glanced a few feet down at a house destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago under a fiery rain of volcanic rock and tapped a grazing ewe with his crook to make sure it didn’t get too close and take a tumble.

“It can happen,” the shepherd, Gaspare de Martino, said with a shrug.

In recent years, the vast archaeological park of Pompeii, a city buried alive by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, has turned to high-tech options to maintain its excavated ruins. A surveillance drone makes a monthly flight over the site’s roughly 10,000 exhumed rooms. Artificial intelligence programs analyze aerial images for new cracks, fallen stones and other signs of erosion. But to prevent the third of the park that remains hidden under pumice and meters of earth from becoming overgrown with thorn bushes, wild hedges and trees, Pompeii has found a more appropriately ancient, and inexpensive, solution in hungry sheep.

Without the sheep “you’d have some kind of jungle that would invade the archaeological structures and the site,” said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the park’s director. He said that he came up with the idea of bringing in the sheep after seeing them maintain the land on top of dikes in the North Sea, and said that the Pompeii sheep would chomp down invasive vegetation, destructive roots and wild terrains that could lead to the city’s reburial under landslides.

“They’re stopping the beginning of something,” he said.

The Pompeii archaeological site.Credit…Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times

But Mr. Zuchtriegel acknowledged that his new landscaping project, which began a few weeks ago, was as much about reimagining Pompeii’s immediate marketing future as it was about preserving its archaeological past. For a city most closely associated with choking clouds of ash and incinerating gusts of heat from one of the most horrific natural disasters in recorded history, the sheep — along with newly planted vineyards, orchards in ancient atriums and plans for local olive oil — are part of a Pompeii Pastoral rebranding campaign to move away from fire and brimstone, and toward farm to table.

“I even dream,” Mr. Zuchtriegel said in German-accented English as the sheep bleated around him, “of wool.”

Mr. Zuchtriegel is one of the so-called super directors recruited internationally by Italy to modernize major museums. He may have visions of a Pompeii-branded farm producing milk, cheese and lamb to be served at a new restaurant overlooking the site and of exclusive scarves and sweaters stacked in a gift shop, but as he points out, the sheep themselves are nothing new for Pompeii.

Pliny the Elder, the ancient world’s great naturalist, wrote in his encyclopedic “Natural History” that the region around Pompeii had “fleeces of sheep so handsome.” He was less impressed with their brains, asserting that “the fleecy sheep is the stupidest of animals.”

Without the sheep “you’d have some kind of jungle that would invade the archaeological structures and the site,” said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of the Pompeii archaeological park.Credit…Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times

The volcano’s eruption killed Pliny with “some gross and noxious vapor,” as his nephew, Pliny the Younger, wrote in his own searing account of the disaster.

In the ensuing centuries, sheep returned and grazed on the earth above the buried city, even after excavation began in the 18th century.

For generations, the ancestors of Mr. de Martino, including his grandfather and father, led their flock to the park’s unexcavated grounds. Only about 15 years ago, he said, did the park management tell him to take a hike.

“We were here forever, but then the old director didn’t let us in anymore,” Mr. de Martino said. “They didn’t like the dung. What was I supposed to do, pick up after them?”

He hissed commands — “Ishuh, Ishuh” — at his two Belgian Shepherds, Sara and Stellina, and leaned on his crook as the sheep mowed the grass and devoured tall reeds and leaped to bite the berries off bushes. “They’ll eat anything.”

The night before, Vesuvius, which is still an active volcano, grumbled near its crater with a small earthquake, though experts say not dangerously. Mr. de Martino, 40, shook off any concern. “When it explodes, it explodes,” he said. “You can’t plan these things. You can’t say, ‘Hold on a sec.’”

He expressed more concern about making a living. Between the competition from big agriculture, and the difficulties of finding fields for his flock around busy streets and a maze of private property, he said he had to transition into truck driving. “With 151 sheep, how do you live?” he asked.

A meal for sheep in Pompeii.Credit…Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times

He said Mr. Zuchtriegel’s invitation to return to the unexcavated fields was an opportunity to “get bigger.”

So far, the sheep seem to be a welcome addition. Tourists walking on the labyrinth of ancient roads paved with large stones looked up from their guidebooks at the sound of clanging sheep bells. “How do I get up there?” one called to Mr. Zuchtriegel, who stood atop the slope and shook his head no. “Prohibited?” the man called back, disappointed.

Mr. Zuchtriegel has sought to use the sheep to introduce autistic children to the park, believing it creates a more memorable, and authentic, Pompeii experience than a lecture about the four styles of Pompeii wall art. “Maybe one day,” Mr. Zuchtriegel said, “we’ll have a thousand sheep or other animals.”

The maintenance workers who are stationed by the Vesuvius Gate near the livestock’s outdoor stall, which is scattered with fennel, said the more lawn-mowing animals, the merrier.

“If they didn’t do it, we’d have to,” Pasquale Lombardi, 52, said, thankfully. Another member of the maintenance crew, Antonio Mariano Siepe, 31, spoke about the potential of the sheep, especially “with roasted potatoes.”

Pompeii maintenance workers from left to right: Lorenzo Diglio, Pasquale Lombardi, Giuseppe Mingo, Mario Caracciolo and Antonio Mariano Siepe. If the sheep didn’t trim the grass, Mr. Lombardi said, “We’d have to.”Credit…Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times

The men walked down the Via Vesuvius, which runs alongside the House of Leda, just below the slope upon which the sheep grazed. There, they tried to strike up a conversation with Barbara dell’Isola, 28, an art restorer in white scrubs, (“What are you up to, Barbara?”) who worked near the sensual fresco of the Spartan queen holding Jupiter, disguised as a swan, on her lap.

She thought, at first, that having the sheep work the fields above her while she worked on the walls “was strange.”

“I felt like there was danger, that some detritus might fall on the walls,” she said. But then she realized that “they only eat.”

Some of the park’s staff saw the return of the sheep as a kind of return of life to Pompeii, a place, perhaps more than any other, that was synonymous with agonizing death.

A friendly brown-and-white stray dog followed Maurizio Bartolini, Pompeii’s gardener, as he walked to the fields. He said the park’s clean environment and lack of pollution had drawn more wild animals, including hoopoe birds, an owl that took residence above the aristocratic House of Pansa and lots of hedgehogs.

“The animals have come back to Pompeii,” he said.

At around 1 p.m., Mr. de Martino sent his dog Sara to start rounding up the sheep, whose incessant ripping at the grass sounded like a heavy rain. They made a noisy, pealing parade back through the Vesuvius Gate and down a dirt road outside the park with Mr. de Martino following closely behind. Giuseppe Mingo, 59, one of the maintenance workers, watched them go, the ruins at their backs, the volcano looming above their heads.

“It’s like ancient times,” he said.

The Odeon theater in Pompeii.Credit…Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times

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