Steven Ellis is like all archaeologists: He loves digging around ruins and feels the thrill when he finds something ancient.
But finding things isn't his goal.
"That's the easy part,'' says Ellis, 34. "Understanding and interpreting the findings is the hard part. My goal is to use the finds to understand everyday life of the non-elite people and the role they played in shaping an ancient city.
"I want to know their customs, their habits, how they lived. I'm always happy to find some ancient cookware, but I'm even happier when I figure out how it related to their lives."
Ellis, a classics professor at the University of Cincinnati and a Mariemont father of 10-month-old twin boys, dresses in jeans and doesn't carry a bullwhip or wear a fedora like Indiana Jones, but he follows happily in Indy's footsteps.
Ellis leaves today for a stop in Greece and then six weeks in Pompeii, the Southern Italian city destroyed in 79 A.D. when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Settled by the Romans in 89 B.C., Pompeii was a large and prosperous city, home to 10,000 to 15,000 people at the time it was buried in molten lava.
An excavation site since the 1750s, it is the world's longest continuing dig. About two-thirds of the city has been cleared of 2,000-year-old debris; the final third will remain as is for three or four more generations so "we can study and understand what we have already in hand before we go digging further," Ellis says. "And by then, technology will have evolved so future excavations will be more precise.
Ellis' team will be working in the southern corner of the city, an entertainment district surrounded by houses, shops and restaurants.
"Among the things we're looking for are clues about how Pompeii got to be a great city. We know it didn't just spring up overnight, so we're looking for its history to see how it came about.
"Plus, we've never looked closely at the middle and lower classes ... So now we're asking those new questions about Roman life."
At 34, Ellis is the youngest archaeologist appointed a Pompeii project director and will be leading, along with co-director Gary Devore of Stanford University, a team of 35, some there for a few days, some for the whole summer.
Ellis has been dashing off to Pompeii since graduate school. Born and raised in Australia, he's the son of a travel writer who grew up going on frequent trips with dad. That was the start of a love affair with travel.
"I got interested in archaeology because of the traveling," Ellis says. "As I got older, I realized that we can travel all over the world, but we can't travel time, and that's what I really wanted to do. Along the way, I developed an interest in Mediterranean archaeology because I love ancient cities and trying to figure out their social networks.
"The Mediterranean fascination is why I'm so thrilled to be here at UC ... It's a world-renowned Mediterranean program, even among people who don't study classics."
Before his Pompeii trek, Ellis will stop in Greece for the East Isthmia Project, a study he co-directs with Timothy Gregory of Ohio State University.
"It's a smaller project than Pompeii, six people, and we're three years into it," Ellis say. "The site is a Panhellenic sanctuary discovered in the early '70s and dating from Roman times. We're trying to figure out what the complex and all the accompanying buildings were used for. At some point, I'll try to turn it into a book."
But first he has to turn Pompeii into a book. Ellis is in the middle of editing "The Making of Pompeii: Studies in the History and Urban Development of an Ancient City," a collection of 12 chapters by international scholars who have spent their careers studying the city. Ellis is the project's editor.
All of this - the books, Greece, Pompeii - brings Ellis closer to his ultimate goal: "I want to discover and excavate an entire city and come to understand it fully - how it got there, who lived there, how they lived, how they got along, everything that happened. It's out there somewhere, maybe Southern Italy or Northern Africa.
"Really, it's all about what I said before, about how we can travel the world but not time. And at the end of the day, time travel is the challenge of archaeology."