On the Spot: Sophie Hay

‘If I was let loose in the archives of the Archaeological Museum in Naples I might never emerge.’

Sophie HayWhy are you an archaeologist of the Roman period?
As a child my parents took me to archaeological sites and I was endlessly fascinated.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
That context is everything. Without it we cannot begin to understand the past through the archaeological record.

Which history book has had the greatest influence on you?
Roman Building by Jean-Pierre Adam.

What book in your field should everyone read?
Pompeii: A Sourcebook by Alison Cooley on ancient graffiti.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?
Certainly not Pompeii in AD 79! Instead, the Achaemenid Persian Empire in the fifth century BC to witness a New Year ceremony at Persepolis.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you? 
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill. He introduced me to Pompeii and I learned more than I could ever hope to retain.

Which person in history would you most like to have met?
Sextus Pompeius Amarantus, the bar owner I studied in Pompeii.

How many languages do you have?
Italian, rusty French and a paltry amount of Latin.

What’s the most exciting field in history today?
Digital visualisation – whether it is used to understand an ancient landscape or capture a museum object in 3-D.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on? 
Classical reception.

Which genre of history do you like least?
Re-enactments. Is that a genre?

Is there an important historical text you have not read?
Countless. Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars is the one I most need to read cover to cover.

What’s your favourite archive?
If I was let loose in the archives of the Archaeological Museum in Naples I might never emerge.

What’s the best museum?
Pompeii itself.

Normans or Anglo-Saxons? 
Normans. Their architecture makes me swoon – although I have the Anglo-Saxons to thank for the word ‘swoon’.

Rome or Athens? No contest, Rome.

Braudel or Gibbon? Gibbon.  

Michelangelo or Frida Kahlo?

What is the most common misconception about your field?
In equal measure: that archaeologists excavate with paintbrushes and that Pompeii was ‘frozen in time’.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?
In archaeology? Not publishing excavations.


Sophie Hay is an archaeologist currently working in collaboration with Cambridge School Classics Project on a history course based on her excavations in Pompeii.