One of the most innovative museum exhibitions of which I have heard is currently touring Canada and will later move on to China and Japan. It presents the archaeologist in his role of Sherlock Holmes, using his discoveries to piece together the human stories associated with them.
In this case the archaeologists in question have rather more to work with than is usual, for the exhibition concerns the city of Pompeii, destroyed in the great eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Unlike other ancient cities that went through many changes and gradually decayed away, Pompeii and its neighbouring cities were destroyed more or less in an instant so that the whole city represents one frozen moment in time.
The destruction was so swift that thousands of the inhabitants perished. Archaeologists have recovered over 2,000 bodies – not the usual disarticulated skeletons found by archaeologists elsewhere, but bodies preserved so well that facial features and even folds in the garments they were wearing are visible. This is because the bodies were covered by wet ash from the volcano which hardened even as the bodies decayed away, leaving a cavity in the ash.
In the 1860s the then director of the site, Giuseppe Fiorelli, had the idea of filling such cavities with plaster and then carefully removing the ash. The result is visually stunning: bodies with which a viewer can immediately feel sympathy, whether the man found crouched against a wall, his hands covering his face, or the body of a girl sprawled on her back where she was felled by the collapse of the house. The most poignant, perhaps, is the contorted body of a dog that died at the front door to which it was chained as a guard dog.
It is around these bodies that the exhibition is built. Each body is surrounded by the objects found nearby – the precious jewellery the people were clutching as they fled, the oil lamp with which they were trying to light their way in the unnatural darkness of the eruption, or the tools of their occupation.
Perhaps the best illustration of the scale of the catastrophe is a modern cast, not of a plaster body this time but of a mass of skeletons. This is one of the most recent discoveries, when 32 bodies (including seven babies and two older children) were found sheltering in an arcade in Herculaneum. The site was completely excavated and cleaned and then covered with silicon elastomer which, when peeled off, enabled the archaeologists to produce a perfect cast of the entire area.
Interestingly one of the skeletons had a complete set of surgical instruments by his side. Presumably he was a doctor, either trapped as he hurried to a patient or fleeing with the tools of his profession in case his professional skills became necessary.
In some cases the information the archaeologists have been able to extract from the remains has enabled them to speculate not only about the sex and age of the individual, but about his or her profession, what they were doing at the time of the eruption and even the route by which they may have tried to escape.
One woman who may have a deal of explaining to do when she meets her husband in the afterlife is the wealthy matron – she was wearing an emerald necklace and other expensive jewellery – who was found in the gladiators’ barracks. Given what Roman writers have to say about the many illicit liasons between wealthy women and gladiators, one may well wonder just what she was doing there.
Alas for the scandal-mongers, the same room contained the remains of 18 other people of both sexes, so it is more likely that she and they took refuge in the barracks from the hail of ash and were then trapped there as drifts of ash blocked the doors and eventually caused the roof to collapse.
On the other hand there is a man somewhere who will certainly have some explaining to do to his wife. In an inn just outside Pompeii the archaeologists found the skeletons of two women and three infants. One of the women, who was about 30 years old, was found lying on her back in the middle of the room. On each arm was a heavy gold bracelet and she was also wearing a gold ring and a gold chain. She was clearly a well-off woman, for she had more bracelets and other jewellery in her handbag – but one of the bracelets bore the inscription “DOMINUS ANCILLAE SUAE” – From Master to his slavegirl. One presumes that she did not receive all that jewellery for sweeping the floor extra nicely!
One can but congratulate the Seprentendenza Archaeologica di Pompei for the imaginative and unusual way in which these finds from Pompeii have been presented. It would be even better if we could tell you that the exhibition was going to come to Australia, but so far there are no plans for that. Those interested in finding out more about Pompeii may wish to visit www.pompeiisites.org This Article Is Reproduced With Special Permission From Archeological Diggings Magazine. For More Information And A Subscription, Please Visit www.DiggingsOnline.Com