‘Italy has no money for its heritage’

Sophie Hay, from the UK, landed a dream job in the 1990s when she was posted to Pompeii to work in the competitive world of archaeology. She speaks to The Local about life in the field and Italy's struggles to finance and maintain its ancient sites.

'Italy has no money for its heritage'
Sophie Hay is an archaeologist for the University of Southampton and is based at the British School at Rome. Photo: Sophie Hay

What inspired you to be an archaeologist?

My parents used to take us on holiday and get us to walk up and down hills looking for a column they’d read about. I liked the ruins and the sense of discovery.

The exact moment came when my parents brought me to Rome. We were walking around the forum and there was a woman working under an umbrella in the shade, with her wooden box and leather bag of kit. She was doing a detailed drawing and I looked at the scene and thought, “that’s what I want to do!”

How did you come to work in Italy?

I had finished my MA in Roman archaeology at the University of Reading and was recommended to work on the Pompeii Project, which was being run by the director of the British School at Rome. I arrived in 1997 to study the walls of Pompeii, to document the layers of change and see how much I could learn without making a mess with excavation.

It was fantastic. I was left to my own devices on site and it was pretty formidable as a first job.

What was life in Pompeii like?

One of the nicest things about being on site is getting to spend time in a place, unlike the tourists. You get to know locals and join in the local festivals.

Italians are very open to foreign people studying their culture; Pompeii alone has so many nationalities represented. I think they are very generous with their heritage and understand that they can’t do it all.

When I was working in Pompeii there were six earthquakes within a few months; I woke up one morning and my bed was travelling across the room!

My friends were divided over what to do if Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed ancient Pompeii, erupted. One group took the “we’re out of here” approach while another group said they would stay – I was with the first group!

Now you’re based in Rome, what do you do?

Since 2003 I’ve worked for the University of Southampton doing geophysics, but I’m based at the British School at Rome.

Geophysics means we use equipment to look under the ground without digging it up. It’s a lot cheaper than excavation and we get to cover huge areas of land; we get the big picture while not destroying anything along the way.

We’ve done entire cities like this, such as Falerii Novi in the north of Rome, where you can even see the column bases in the forum.

So archaeology’s not all about digging?

No, a lot of sites we work on never get dug. There are levels to archaeology; people who look at satellite images, then drones that fly over at a lower level. Then there’s us surveying the ground and the excavators that find the last detail.

What kind of projects do you work on in Rome?

Projects have been getting smaller and smaller because there’s less money; we’re doing more projects in shorter amounts of time.

Archaeology has changed hugely; there’s zero money for culture and heritage.

We get asked to do projects by the city council, who come to us but they don’t have the money. There comes a point when we just do it because we are in Rome and we are research-led – we don’t do anything for a profit.

Rome is one of the poorest city councils and we work hard at the British School to raise money and looking for sponsors.

Is it still possible for archaeologists to find work?

It’s hugely competitive. Archaeology definitely works on a 'who you know' basis, especially field archaeology. You’re not only judged on your academic credentials and your ability.

This is because you’re going to be working as part of a team that’s going to have to live together for long periods of time, so people want to amass a team that works.

With few funds and tough competition, what makes archaeology worth it?

The utter fortune of doing something that you really love. In archaeology, you really have to feel that passion. I do this five days a week or more – I’d rather have the happiness that comes with it than be an accountant and be miserable!  

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What are the best Rome neighbourhoods for international residents?

Whether you're moving to Rome for the first time or are looking for a new neighbourhood to live in, here are five of the best 'quartieri' for foreign nationals.

What are the best Rome neighbourhoods for international residents?


Testaccio is a historic working-class Roman neighbourhood that’s become increasingly popular among international residents in recent years.

It’s surrounded on two sides by the Tiber, meaning you can walk along the river into the centre of town; and has good transport links, as it’s right next to both Piramide metro and Ostiense train station.


With its bustling food market and old-school Roman restaurants, Testaccio is a foodie haven, and you’ll often see food tours huddled around the market stalls nibbling on supplì and pecorino (though it’s mercifully otherwise relatively free of tour groups).

Testaccio's historic food market is a major draw.

Testaccio’s historic food market is a major draw. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP.

At one point it was ancient Rome’s river port and a commercial hub, so you’ll also see interesting Roman ruins like Monte Testaccio, a little hill formed entirely of broken clay pots (a 2000-year-old trash heap) or historic archways that made up part of the old quayside.


Located just across the river from the city centre, Trastevere is one of Rome’s most picturesque neighbourhoods, with the characteristic cobbled streets, terracotta-coloured dwellings and draping vines that many foreigners think of as quintessentially Italian.

READ ALSO: Six things foreigners should expect if they live in Rome

That also means it’s extremely popular with tourists and foreign students, who throng its piazzas and labyrinthine alleys year-round.

There’s no shortage of restaurants and bars in which to while away lazy afternoons and evenings; in fact there’s little else, and you’ll have to do a bit of digging to find ordinary shops and services.

Trastevere is popular with tourists and students.

Trastevere is popular with tourists and students. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP.

Its central location means Trastevere has less of a neighbourhood feel than somewhere like Testaccio, but if you’re looking for a buzzing area that’s just a short stroll from some of Rome’s most famous monuments, it could be the place for you.


If you’re moving to Rome but wish you were in Berlin, you might want to venture east of the centre to Pigneto, where the cool kids go.

Its grey apartment blocks and grungy aesthetic might not make it much to look at, but its cheap(ish) rents and refreshingly un-stuffy vibe are attracting increasing numbers of young people.

Pigneto makes up for in coolness what it lacks in beauty.

Pigneto makes up for in coolness what it lacks in beauty. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.

Pigneto’s main strip of bars and restaurants, relatively quiet during the day, comes to life in the evenings and especially on weekends, when it turns into a vibrant party hub.

As well as having a fairly youthful population, the area is more of a cultural melting pot than many other parts of the city – though for a truly international experience you’ll want to go even further east to Tor Pignettara, where you’ll find some of Rome’s best non-Italian food.

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Just a few hundred feet from the Colosseum, Monti is practically in the city centre, though it’s still managed to retain its own distinctive personality.

It’s a trendy district where you’ll find a mix of stylish wine bars, chic restaurants, vintage clothing stores and high-end boutiques.

READ ALSO: ‘Why I used to hate living in Rome as a foreigner – and why I changed my mind’

Monti’s prime location means rents are high, and you’ll sometimes have to contend with crowds of tourists as you push your way to your front door.

But if you want to live in a fashionable and attractive neighbourhood that’s in Rome’s beating heart, you’d be hard pressed to find a better option.

Rome's trendy Monti district is a stone's throw from the Colosseum.

Rome’s trendy Monti district is a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP.


Heading to the northwest of the city centre, just east of Vatican City, sits the elegant residential and commercial district of Prati.

This neighbourhood’s broad avenues, attractive residences and upmarket shopping streets have historically made it preserve of upper-class Italians, many of whom work in surrounding offices or the several courthouses that fall within its boundaries.

Prati’s grid-like shape and heavily-trafficked roads mean it doesn’t have much of a neighbourhood feel, but it has plenty of sophisticated restaurants, cafes and bars.

It’s also just across the river from Villa Borghese, one of Rome’s largest and most attractive parks, with easy access to the world-class Galleria Borghese art gallery.

READ ALSO: Six essential apps that make life in Rome easier for foreign residents

Rome's Prati district is just across the river from leafy Villa Borghese.

Rome’s Prati district is just across the river from leafy Villa Borghese. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.