Chuck Palahniuk, the US author of Fight Club, noted that “we’ll be remembered more for what we destroy than what we create”. For anyone who has been following the saga of ancient Pompeii over the past few years, that observation has the bite of reality. Report after report has appeared in the press detailing the collapse of this wall, the closure of that house or, in one extreme case in 2010, the destruction of a whole building.

Pompeii, which attracts some 2.3 million visitors a year, may be adept at grabbing the headlines, but the insidious creep of heritage erosion is far from limited to the Bay of Naples — in fact, it is a problem that encompasses the archaeological wealth of the globe.

Heritage is ensnared in a particularly vicious catch-22. On the one hand, ruins are a key source of inspiration and income, as tourists flock to connect with the past. On the other, that throng so in thrall to history does untold damage merely by turning up to have a look. But even without hordes of tourists inflicting wear and tear on fragile remains, ruins face a determined and dangerous enemy in the shape of the elements.

As soon as an artefact is unearthed, decay sets in. Objects and buildings that have lain preserved for centuries beneath the earth immediately begin to suffer when exposed to the atmosphere. A few kilometres down the road from Pompeii, the site of Herculaneum, which was buried by the same volcanic eruption in ad 79, is faring better than its more famous sibling. True, the exposed site is much smaller, but with a high number of multi-storey buildings and a lot of preserved organic matter, Herculaneum presents unique challenges. The site’s enhanced ability to hold decay at bay is largely down to a public–private venture launched in 2001 and the multidisciplinary approach that the ensuing project has taken.

That success is an object lesson not only for Pompeii, which hopes to set up a similar project to help preserve the ruins (see page 411), but also for the malaise that grips Italy’s heritage as a whole. Hampered by debt, the country lacks the finances to reverse the decay afflicting its monuments. Instead, it must rely on external funds and philanthropists. The crumbling Colosseum in Rome, for example, is being repaired thanks to some €25 million (US$35 million) from billionaire Diego Della Valle. Yet this is still not enough. Just west of Rome, ancient Ostia is beset by weeds, and was even flooded earlier this year.

Although structural repairs and conservation at any site require money and coordinated expertise, fending off many of the agents of erosion — by controlling vegetation, for example, or employing more guards to keep tourists in check — is relatively easy to achieve. Such steps would be important gains in this war of attrition. Finding ways to maximize the revenues coming into the sites and relaxing the austerity law stopping the employment of public-works personnel would be a start. For if preventable problems are not tackled urgently, then no amount of money from external sources will be able to reverse the tide of decay.