When the great Mount Vesuvius rumbled in A.D. 62, shaking down rooftops and cracking walls in the city of Pompeii that lay in its shadow, the people of Pompeii rebuilt their walls and covered their structures with new roofs. Seventeen years later, when the great volcano spewed its fury down, the city of Pompeii crumbled and burned. So did the citizens who were unable to flee. Within a day from the first rumblings, the once-great Pompeii was buried under 12 feet of ash. Eventually, it was forgotten.
The events of Pompeii are facts, but in many ways they feel more like myth or legend. Over the years, Archaeologists have brought the A.D. 79 thriving city back to life. And now, and with the help of The Cincinnati Museum Center, we are all able to experience “A Day in Pompeii.”
The volcano eruption that destroyed Pompeii also preserved it where it lay sleeping until a farmer digging a well struck the ancient theater of Herculaneum and found ancient marble sculptures in the early 1700s.
This statue was likely commissioned as a memorial to the individual depicted. Unlike the Romans’ tendency to idealize the human body, this sculpture shows the lines and wrinkles of an aging man.
This might be my favorite piece in the exhibit, although the radiance of alabaster is difficult to capture in a photo. It was carved from a single block of alabaster.
In many ways, this exhibit reminded me of our trip to Italy,
for good reason I suppose, with all the sculptures of the Roman gods.
Frescos made by painting on top of fresh plaster decorated the walls of Pompeii, similar to those seen in historic sites all over Italy.
Maybe I’ve watched one too many episodes of “Bones,” because I completely understood when the sign explained that these are facial reconstructions made from the skulls found at the house of Marcus Julius Polybius. It’s a little disconcerting to look at someone’s face who you know was a victim of great tragedy. They can’t tell us their story. We can only guess from the items they left behind.
Whenever possible, cooking and baking was done outside of the dwelling places. Possibly also used to bake bread, this portable stove would have been carried outside. When a fire was built in the bottom, a meal could be cooked on top.
A charcoal fire would have been built on the flat base of this portable stove allowing pots and pans to be placed above the curved sections. A griddle could be added on top of the coals to cook fish and meat.
This container may have held drinking water for a family. Some containers and water pipes were made from lead because it is a soft metal and easily shaped. Now we know that lead can be deadly.
This helmet would have been worn by a gladiator at Pompeii’s amphitheater. It would have held a plume of feathers or horsehair on the crest on top. A set of bronze gladiator shin guards were also on display in this exhibit.
No ancient Roman household would be complete without wine amphoras. The standard amphora was designed to hold one cubic foot of wine. The little one must have been a trial size.
Here are some of the objects found beside burial urns to accompany the person to the Underworld.
Pompeii was a city with many affluent people who owned statues and homes decorated with mosaics and frescoes. As you might expect, many of them had jewelry.
This rope chain necklace could be worn crisscrossed over the chest and back, or looped several times around the neck.
These gold arm bands were found in a building believed to be a brothel. They were still around the skeletal arms of two young women.
This loaf of bread is a plaster copy from a carbonized original. The wealthy ate leavened bread with every meal. The poor could not afford bread made with yeast and ate hard unleavened bread similar to pita.
These herma are made from marble. Herma typically depicted the Greek god Hermes, patron of travelers. Herma stood as pillars at street corners. In the background you can see the large fresco that covered a garden wall.
As part of the “A Day in Pompeii” exhibit, a time-lapsed mult-media room recreates the sights, sounds and then silence of the city’s final hours from the time the walls first shook in the morning of the fateful day, through the barrage of hot ash and the ensuing fires, to the blast of ash that covered the city in the final hours.
Pompeii was not the only city in the path of Vesuvius’ destruction. Herculaneum, four miles to the north, was also destroyed. Many people who fled the burning city took refuge in boat houses near the sea waiting for rescue. They were killed by a pyroclastic surge of ash and hot gases. These 32 people were found together. The group included nine children.
A closer look at the back of the cast reveals an individual sitting with bent legs. He or she is apparently trying to protect the skull of the individual lying beneath.
The most moving part of the exhibit were the body casts of the victims of Vesuvius who refused, or were unable, to leave. These ill-fated individuals likely took shelter in buildings during the early part of the disaster. When the volcanic materials made it to the upper floors of the buildings they were in, they tried to escape across the layers of ash and stone accumulating on the ground.
During the next phase of the eruption with pyroclastic surges of scalding moist ash, these people were likely asphyxiated. The wet material encased their bodies where they fell, preserving detailed facial expressions and, at times, folds of clothing. When the bodies eventually decomposed, they left behind a cavity not unlike a mold. From this scientists were able to recreate the last moments of victims’ lives.
The body casts are at the end of the exhibit. I found them difficult to look at. There is a man reaching out to a woman when they died. There is a child. A young woman. A soldier sitting up, trying to protect his face with his cape (not pictured below). Real live human beings caught in the moment when time ended.
A Day in Pompeii is an educational, fascinating, and moving exhibit. I hope you have the opportunity to experience it someday.
There are three active volcanoes in the continental United States: Mount St. Helens, Mount Ranier, and Yellowstone.
All information is from the brochures and signs of “A Day in Pompeii.”