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Museum Brings Pompeii To Life

In August 79 AD, disaster struck among the cities surrounding Mt. Vesuvius in Italy.  It is believed that the Roman citizens living in that area did not know that the mountain looming above their homes was a volcano, nor did they know that the earthquakes leading up to that day were an indication that an eruption would follow.

When it erupted that day, Mt. Vesuvius eventually sealed everything and everyone in its path beneath 70 feet of lava.

The most famous of those cities, Pompeii, has been discovered and rediscovered since the 1700’s, and it has fascinated the entire world.  Not only does it offer us unique and extraordinary insights into the people and culture of that time, but it offers something else that few other archeological sites offer us today: body casts of the people themselves.

These body casts are the work of Giuseppe Fiorelli, an Italian archeologist in the 1800’s, who poured plaster into cavities found within the lava.  As these casts reveal, bodies of both people and animals in the city left an imprint in the lava as they decayed.  Thus we are able to see details of these people and these animals—their clothing, their limbs, elements of their faces—in their last moments of life.  More  than 1000 of these casts exist today.

For people who are not able to travel to Italy, the Boston Museum of Science is offering visitors the chance to see some of the actual artifacts and replicas of body casts from Pompeii itself.

“A Day in Pompeii” is the result of the collaboration between four science centers throughout the US, the Italian archeological group in charge of preserving Pompeii (Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei), and a science center in Melbourne, Australia.

This is a travelling exhibit, so it will remain in Boston through February 12, 2012.  It then continues on to Cincinnati and Denver.

While the artifacts and general content remain the same in each exhibit, each science center has the freedom to design its presentation. As Paul Fontaine, VP of Education for the Boston Museum, explained, “Designing [the exhibit] was part of the fun.”  He described it as a “storyline”.

Indeed, archeology is uniquely poised to bring the dead back to life.  The story offered in “A Day in Pompeii” offers us a glimpse of ancient life that is well worth experiencing in person.

Boston’s exhibit begins with an enormous botanical fresco behind a statue of Venus. Its size and richness of color invite you to stop and admire it. By its very placement within the exhibit, one cannot help but feel that it was designed to welcome you, as you might have been welcomed into someone’s home almost 2000 years ago. 

There is a marked organization to Boston’s presentation: one that walks you through a home in Pompeii through business and life outside of the home and finally to examples of how they remembered their dead. The storyline within Boston’s exhibit celebrates the beauty and life that was enjoyed in that city, rather than the destruction that brought it to its end.

A brief film takes us through an example of a computer-generated home and part of the city as it may have appeared in 79 AD. 

One of the surprising details it offers is that laundry was dropped off at the ancient equivalent of dry-cleaners.  Perhaps more surprising are both the communal effort for and the ingredients used to whiten clothing. 

The film explains that jars were left throughout the city, into which anyone (presumably men) could urinate.  These jars were collected at the laundry, and the ammonia from the urine was used to whiten clothing.

When asked how anyone could determine this, Paul Fontaine said that archeology is “part puzzle”. 

“If you can record where everything is found,” he said, “then you can begin to tell the story.”

Archeologists recorded specific types of jars at various public places within the city.  These same jars were recorded en masse within the laundries.  And how did one know that a building in question was a laundry?  Signs indicating its function were found on the outside of the building.

Leaving the film and returning back to the exhibit, there are statues, more frescoes, metal lamps, even a marble table chosen by Paul Fontaine himself.  Moving from artifacts, furniture and artwork found in homes and gardens, we are able to see evidence of food preparation.  One of the more remarkable items is a replica of carbonized bread—someone’s initials carved into a section of the loaf. 

We are shown examples of a myriad Roman coins, a medical kit, Gladiator attire, and a scale for business exchanges.  We are able to see funerary items and funerary statues. 

But perhaps the most powerful draw to “A Day in Pompeii” is the body casts. Unlike the rest of the exhibit, the room in which they are housed is darkened, somewhat apart from everything else.  The body casts lie upon raised beds amidst a sea of stones, positioned so that one can walk around almost all of them.

These casts enable us to connect with  the people of Pompeii in a more visceral way than any other artifact. Walking into the room is much like walking into a church, as visitors begin to speak in hushed tones upon seeing the body casts.

In a corner is the replica cast of a group of skeletons found in Herculaneum, a neighboring city.  Unlike the citizens of Pompeii, the people of Herculaneum had more time to escape. They were not subject to the ash and debris that befell Pompeii.  Those that were not able to escape were killed by the pyroclastic flow, an incredibly hot and fast-moving wave of gas.

The reason behind displaying both casts from Pompeii and skeletons from Herculaneum is to demonstrate the different effects these two cities experienced on the same day from the same volcanic eruption.

While horrific, these skeletons are extremely valuable, for they provided the first chance to actually study people from that time in history.  Romans cremated their dead.  These skeletons gave archeologists a window into their nutrition and their health.

Another film in an adjacent room animates the stages of that eruption and how it affected Pompeii.

That eruption and the threat of another possible eruption in the near future are the prevailing themes throughout the exhibit.  One leaves the artifacts of Pompeii to enter a room filled with images and information on current active volcanoes throughout the world.  In it, we are reminded how prevalent volcanoes are globally and what tools we’ve developed to help us—in today’s society—avoid similar disasters.

The storyline presented by “A Day in Pompeii” will stay with you long after you’ve left the Museum. This is one exhibit you don’t want to miss!

When and where: now through February 12, 2012, Boston Museum of Science

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