Pompeii: A Lesson in Life and Death . . . and History

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was aware from a very young age of the power of volcanoes. Not that I ever experienced one, but we learned about them in geography, and I knew that the mountains all around us were volcanic. Indian legends told of past eruptions, and we knew that many of our most majestic peaks still had the potential to blow.

And then, not long after I moved away, but while my family still lived in Washington State on both sides of the Cascades, Mount St. Helens erupted. The volcano’s devastation could be seen first-hand

But the Romans of 1st Century Pompeii did not even have a word for “volcano,” according to an exhibit on Pompeii that I recently attended. Imagine these Romans’ shock on that day in 79 A.D., when rocks and fiery ash rained down, ultimately burying everyone and everything beneath many feet of debris and ash.

Detail from Last Days of Pompeii, painting by Russian artist Karl Bryullov, 1830-33

The exhibit is called “Journey Through Time: To the Last Day of the Lost City”, and it is housed at Union Station in Kansas City. It displays nearly 200 artifacts on loan from the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

The volcano that destroyed Pompeii also preserved it, and the items in the exhibit tell the story of the destruction and of the way of life that was destroyed. Pompeii may give us the best depiction of how Romans lived in the 1st Century A.D. that we will ever have.

The volcano had been active for millennia before the eruption in 79 A.D., but it had been dormant for generations, and most ancient Romans were probably not even aware of its potential to erupt. Pompeii had been destroyed by an earthquake in 62 A.D., and if residents gave the rumblings in the days ahead of the eruption any thought, it was probably to suspect another earthquake.

The eruption began shortly after noon one day and continued through the evening. Most residents of the city of 25,000 probably had only a few hours to evacuate the city. Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness from a neighboring town, described the ash cloud as causing “darkness as if the light had gone out in a room that is locked and sealed.”

When it was over, almost five cubic miles of pumice and ash covering approximately 186 miles of land. People were buried in place, some in their homes, some trying to flee. Over 2,000 people lost their lives as a result of the eruption.

Cast of deceased Pompeiian

The ash covered the dead so completely that centuries later we know exactly the position some were in when they died. Their remains have since decayed, but the ash remained firmly in place. Researchers made casts of the spaces in the ash where bodies used to be. The casts are precise enough to show folds in clothing and expressions on faces. Some of those casts were in the Union Station exhibit.

The city was lost for almost 1700 years. Its destruction was so complete that the Romans soon forgot where it had been. It was rediscovered in 1748, and over the last 250 years, we have learned about Roman civilization from its preserved buildings and artifacts.

During the early excavations, the city was crudely plundered, and for decades there was no attempt to record or preserve the site. Later, Italy took control of the best frescoes and artifacts, which are now housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. In 1997, Pompeii and surrounding sites were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Nevertheless, nature continues to harm the site. It’s been struck by earthquakes, and in 2010 torrential rains destroyed some buildings. In the end, nature will win, and all we will have left of Pompeii is what we can preserve in museums and what has never been excavated. (Approximately one-third of the city is still buried.)

I’ve been to the excavations at Pompeii twice and seen the barren stone streets and buildings. Some frescoes and statues are still in place, but most have been moved. But I’d never seen artifacts as well preserved as those included in the Union Station exhibit.

As I walked the streets of Pompeii, most recently in November 2005, I could get the sense of a bustling city. But the stone shells and the few remaining frescoes do not tell the story of the people who lived there the way the traveling exhibit does. The every-day artifacts in the exhibit, supplemented by the imagination of historians and museum curators fill in the gaps.

We know how the Romans decorated their homes. And what types of jewelry they wore.

We know the armor the gladiators sported. We know how they measured their weights. And what their tweezers looked like. And even how their hydraulic valves worked.

Bust of Agrippina the Elder decorating a home in Pompeii. Notice dye still visible on her hair.

Asp water fountain

Jewelry. I would wear this today.

A gladiator's shin guard

Roman hydraulic valve

Weights from a shop in Pompeii

Bronze tweezers

Cast of dog. Only the bronze studs on his collar remain.

And, of course, we know how they died.

This exhibit depicted how natural forces can both destroy and educate. It showed me how the fear of one generation can provoke awe many centuries later. And it made me wonder what daily artifacts of our lives today will provoke amazement a millennium from now.

I have the same thoughts when I see museum exhibits on the American pioneers, but my marvel at history becomes even greater when I think about our society today sometime becoming so ancient we are known only through archeology.

What have historical exhibits taught you about life in the past?

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8 Comments

  1. The Dead Sea Scrolls. We took our extended family when grandson, Sam, was two.
    He began to cry when his daddy put his coat on before heading to the car.
    “Why are you crying, son?”
    “I don’t want to go see the dead sea squirrels!”

  2. Did you ever have SRA reading materials when you were a kid? In 4th grade I read about Pompeii on an SRA card and never forgot it. It made such a huge impression.

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