Earlier today, I went along to a new exhibition at the British Museum about the doomed Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The exhibition cost is £15 for adults. If you buy the annual member’s pass for the British Museum (£50), then you can visit the exhibition – and all other British Museum exhibitions as many times as you want and you do not need to queue.
Both Pompeii and Herculaneum were famously destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and they lay covered in ash which over time became rock until the towns were rediscovered in the 1700s.
The above image shows the Roman God of Wine, Bacchus, draped with grapes, standing next to Mount Vesuvius which was home to a number of vineyards.
The excavations since the 1700s have fascinated the world and the British Museum has with the help of their counterparts in Italy helped bring together around 300 artefacts in what is described as the biggest exhibition on the subject in the UK for twenty years, so it really is a once in a generation opportunity to see this material in London.
At the beginning of the exhibition there is a video explaining what happened when Mount Vesuvius erupted. It was the first time that I had heard of the term ‘pyroclastic surge’ – a mass of gas and rock released by a volcanic eruption. According to a National Geographic article “when the pyroclastic surge hit Pompeii, there was no time to suffocate…The contorted postures are not the effects of a long agony, but of the cadaveric spasm, a consequence of heat shock on corpses.”
We are then introduced to examples of what has been excavated in Pompeii and the neighboring town of Herculaneum including atriums, mosaics, frescoes, jewellery etc and we begin to build up a picture of what life was like for the dwellers of those towns.
The above is a rather lovely mosaic of a guard dog found in a home in Pompeii.
All the while though, a sense of foreboding grows. We know that soon we are going to see examples of terrible destruction. And when it does come, it is chilling. Chilling to the bone.
The above is a plaster cast of a guard dog found in the House of Orpheus – the same house that the dog mosaic shown earlier was found. The dog’s posture is contorted in agony.
And then, in a heartbreaking scene, we are shown a human family, with the mother and father having fallen down in pain and their two children, the younger of whom is still on the mother’s lap and appears to be clawing at a wall.
The Latin poet Statius (45 – 96 AD) wrote the following lines about the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum:
“Will future centuries,
when new seed will have covered over the waste,
believe that entire cities and their inhabitants lie under their feet,
and that the fields of their ancestors were drowned in a sea of flames?”
In the video I mentioned earlier, when discussing the terrible events visited upon Pompeii and Herculaneum, we were told that what Mount Vesuvius robbed from those towns, it has bequeathed to us.
Update: To coincide with the British Museum’s exhibition, the BBC have broadcast this superb one-hour documentary about Pompeii and Herculaneum. It is available to watch on the i-Player till Wednesday 10th April 2013.