by Roderick Conway Morris

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Man the Maker and the Natural World

By Roderick Conway Morris
NAPLES 5 June 1999
National Archeological Museum, Naples
Floor mosaic with fish and ducks from Pompeii,
1st century AD



'Nature, that is to say Life, is my subject,' writes Pliny the Elder in the preface to his 'Natural History,' that extraordinary compendium of all contemporary knowledge, with facts about everything from animals, vegetables, minerals, geography and astronomy, to the hazards of sponge diving, varieties of mattress, ostrich plumes on officers' helmets and the history of sculpture and painting.

The author was in command of a fleet in the north of the Bay of Naples when he saw the column of smoke rising from Vesuvius that presaged the destruction of Pompeii. It was typical of the man, whose curiosity was limitless, that he immediately set off in a fast, light vessel to investigate.

Once on the scene he was reduced to putting a pillow on his head to protect himself from the hail of pumice stones as he busily continued his on-the-spot observations. Finally, asphyxiated by fumes, he became a martyr to science.

Pliny would surely have been delighted by 'Homo Faber: Nature, Science and Technology in Ancient Pompeii,' at Naples's National Archeological Museum, which continues until July 18, before going on tour to the United States, Germany, Spain, Japan, France and Britain over the next two years.

The exhibition is the result of recent researches by teams of experts in several fields and gives a fascinating, multi-faceted picture of Roman life, frozen forever when time stood still in Pompeii and the surrounding area in August 79 A.D. It is also accompanied by an informative catalog and an entertaining CD-ROM, produced by the History of Science Museum in Florence, which brings Pompeii garden frescoes to life by reproducing the songs of birds depicted in them, recreates the sounds of Roman musical instruments illustrated in a mosaic, shows ancient machines in action by means of animations and so on.

Even urban Romans lived very close to nature, the surrounding woods and forests teeming with game and the rivers and sea with aquatic life. Art, when not depicting exotic species such as elephants and hippos, tended to concentrate on the edible, and there is a very precise seafood mosaic here that would be perfectly at home on the wall of a modern fishmonger's shop.

Small birds and mammals were caught in traps and nets, but other potential food sources were more dangerous to obtain, such as wild boar, which could weigh well over 400 pounds and move at nearly 40 miles an hour.

Fish farming was advanced, oysters being a favorite and lucrative product. One of the most arresting exhibits is a reconstruction of an ancient marine 'vivarium' for raising moray eels, complete with live inhabitants that peer at the visitor with baleful beady eyes from behind the glass. One particularly nasty Roman, as Pliny informs us, found his eel tanks convenient for disposing of condemned slaves, since these vicious sea-serpents could tear a man to shreds in a matter of minutes.

There are also clay dovecotes here, popular for raising birds for eggs and meat, and an intriguing three-story towerlet for dormice, which regularly featured on the Roman table (while tortoises were popular pets). Cats, rabbits and peacocks were first introduced into Italy during this period, as were cherries, apricots and lemons.

Indeed, as the show demonstrates, the extent of trade within the empire and far beyond was by this time enormous, with even heavy goods such as marble being transported long distances, Pliny, like other patrician commentators of the era, deplored this mania for the exotic, while at the same time was fascinated by the weird and wonderful things that turned up from distant lands.

The passion for cosmetics was a major manifestation of Roman consumerism. Girls and women had access to a formidable array of foundation creams, astringents, eye-shadows and -liners, lipsticks, toothpastes and whiteners, hair tints and dyes. (Pliny suggests an infusion containing wine, saffron, pepper, vinegar and mouse droppings to combat thinning hair and recommends ass's milk as a sovereign remedy for removing wrinkles.) Cosmetics and perfumes, which were oil-based, since the distillation of alcohol was not yet known, were kept in precious glass and alabaster bottles and elaborate make-up cases whose expense matched the cost of their contents.

Although this is not designed as an art show, apart from the frescoes and mosaics chosen to illustrate specific themes that are also beautiful in themselves, many of the household goods here are extremely attractive as well as practical. Outstanding is the blown glass, some fine ceramics and bronze works, including an exceedingly elegant standard lamp.

Medicine was far more developed in some areas, such as eye surgery, than many of us now would suspect, and some of the instruments on display are strikingly sophisticated and would not look out of place in a modern operating theater.

Formic acid, extracted from red ants, was used as a disinfectant, and acid from willow leaves, now a synthetically produced element in aspirin, was used as a painkiller. Interestingly, quite a number of ancient Roman formulae, some of which current analysis has shown to be soundly based chemically, were still in use in Italy until very recent times.

The Romans gained a great deal of knowledge from the Greeks, but it was in applied rather than pure science that they made their most distinctive marks. They turned measurement almost into an art, and a whole section of the exhibition is devoted to it, from exactly graded glass bottles for measuring liquids to scales and land-surveying equipment. The star exhibit here - both in the form of a full-scale model and an animation on the CD-ROM - is the 'Odometer,' a cart with a system of cogs attached to its back axle, which caused a stone to drop through a hole with a clunk into a wooden box every 1,860 yards, making it possible to place milestones along roads with pinpoint precision.

The cumulative effect of this richly detailed and lucidly explained evocation of a lost world makes this one of the most thought-provoking and enjoyable archaeological shows of recent years.

It also contains an implicit message when one considers some of the species on display that were then so abundant but now, as a result of exploitation and pollution, no longer exist in the Mediterranean or are well on their way to extinction.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023