by Roderick Conway Morris

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Huntington Library, Pasadena
An Eruption of Vesuvius seen from Portici by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1774-76

Pompeii's preserved bodies tell their story

By Roderick Conway Morris
NAPLES 10 May 2003


'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, it's just possible you haven't grasped the situation,' the playwright Jean Kerr observed, updating Rudyard Kipling for a more cynical age. Kerr's words take on a positively macabre slant when applied to that sunny day of Aug. 24, A.D. 79, when at about 1 p.m. Vesuvius began to erupt. For had the entire population of Pompeii and its surrounding settlements been sufficiently panicked to flee then and there, what would have been buried deep beneath the ash and stone that later began to rain down on the plain would have been empty ghost towns and sea ports, abandoned villas and farms.

As it was, a considerable number of residents remained until it was too late to escape, providing posterity, in the form of their corpses frozen in death, a unique record of the human life of an ancient city and hinterland, brought to a standstill and then fossilized in a matter of hours.

It is these individuals, families, households, fellow workers and disparate huddles of victims - brought together by chance as the catastrophe unfolded and the items found with them when their lives were cut short - that form the narrative of an enthralling and sometimes disturbing exhibition: 'Stories of an Eruption: Pompeii, Herculaneum and Oplontis.' The show, which contains some fascinating new discoveries, continues at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples until Aug. 31, then goes on to the Musees Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire in Brussels from Oct. 9 to Feb. 8, 2004.

The eruption started soon after midday, when the volcano sent up the first billows of what quickly became a massive column of smoke. By late afternoon, the dust and ashes filling the upper atmosphere had obscured the sun, as witnessed by the numerous lamps and lanterns found by the bodies of many who fell while trying to make their way through the gloom. Having risen to an immense height, at about 1 a.m. on Aug. 25 the column abruptly collapsed, sending a surge of incandescent gas and debris, reaching temperatures of 400 degrees centigrade (750 degrees Fahrenheit), rolling down the sides of the mountain and across the plains. Any fugitives still on the streets or in the open air were killed instantly by this surge, in some cases the heat causing their craniums to explode.

Comparatively few inhabitants of Herculaneum remained to be caught by this blast, since most had had the opportunity to flee. During the 1980s, however, a new excavation of the town's harbor area uncovered a series of barrel-vaulted sheds along a beach, seemingly used to keep boats and fishing tackle. About 300 people had sought refuge in these shelters, and although they were protected from the full force of the volcano's first surge, they died soon after from the intense heat and toxic gases. The exceptionally detailed cast (thanks to modern techniques) of a group preserved in the agonized throes of death, is the exhibition's most nightmarish display.

Among the individuals in the boathouses were a doctor or surgeon, who was carrying a set of instruments strikingly similar to their present-day equivalents, and a soldier, who had with him his weapons and a knapsack containing tools.

Owing to the uneven ways in which the eruption struck different places, the levels of preservation of materials vary. Thus, in Herculaneum, above average quantities of vegetable matter, wood, papyrus and even fabrics survived. Some, such as a table and a child's cradle shown here, although instantaneously carbonized by the searing heat, have remained almost perfect in outward form.

The social spectrum of victims ran from aristocrat to slave, their possessions adding up to a surprisingly vivid picture of occupations, lives, even tastes. Many met their deaths in their own houses or shops, asphyxiated or crushed as roofs buckled under the weight of debris showering from the heavens. Others fell while in flight, having hastily gathered their most precious portable possessions - jewelry, coins, statuettes, the family silver - and often their front-door keys.

In some cases, lettered ring seals make it possible to identify owners by name. One woman, about 30 years old, was carrying a substantial quantity of jewelry, yet a large, finely wrought gold bracelet bears an inscription that makes clear it was a gift from her master and that she was a slave.

At the time of the disaster, Pompeii was still being rebuilt after a major earthquake in A.D. 62 - perhaps a reason why many presumed that the city, having outlived this previous natural calamity, would surely weather the new one.

The earthquake had put the gladiators' barracks out of action, and they were still being accommodated in alternative premises, where large amounts of their equipment has been found, some in mint condition. Intriguingly, one of the victims here was a woman wearing expensive jewelry, giving rise to speculation that she was one of those wealthy, bored ladies - deplored by Roman moralists - who, in search of thrills, granted favors to gladiators, and that she had been surprised by the eruption during a clandestine visit to her lover. If so, this last meeting must have been a frustrating one, given that by the time of her demise at least 18 other people were in the room, including several children (who had probably taken refuge in the building, as the well-heeled lady may well have done from the downpour of ash and stones outside).

Even likely looters, stopped, as it were, in their tracks, are to be found here. One such expired in Salvius's Shop, with a very mixed hoard of rings, jewels, cameos and other booty. This individual died at dawn on Aug. 25, when the eruption showed signs of temporarily abating, and his delay in quitting the city could be explained by his desire to remain behind and enrich himself when others had fled.

About 100 meters from the remains of the generously adorned female slave, a recent excavation because of a road-widening project has brought to light a buried three-part cycle of frescoes, for the most part well preserved, adorning a trio of dining rooms in which the marble-clad structures of the couches and sophisticated plumbing system were still substantially intact. The central figures in these delicate paintings are Apollo and allegorical representations of Rome and Greece, surrounded by the muses of music, lyric poetry, history, tragedy, comedy and astronomy. A plausible hypothesis is that this was one of the luxury wayside diners purpose-built along road, river and sea routes for the convenience of Emperor Nero when on his travels.

The graceful, lively figures adorning these walls make for a stark contrast with the casts of the dead that punctuate the rest of the exhibition. At the same time, after encountering so many Pompeiians by this stage, both through their remains and the possessions that stimulate the imagination to bring them back to life, these magnificently appointed, uncluttered rooms seem strangely empty.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024