Life & Death in Pompeii & Herculaneum – Twin Cities of Fate

Post Conservation Apollo as an Archer (Apollo Saettante), Roman, 100 B.C.–before A.D. 79. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei—Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

 …his body was found entire, and without any marks of violence upon it, in the dress in which he fell, and looking more like a man asleep than dead*

It’s hard to imagine that The British Museum had not yet ever presented a major exhibition about the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum before 2013 when it finally presented a show Life & Death in Pompeii & Herculaneum about the ill-fated twin cities.

Herculaneum (in modern Italian Ercolano) was a small seaside town that was lost, along with Pompeii, Stabiae and Oplontis during a violent eruption of Vesuvius, a nearby volcano.

The city of Pompeii was the industrial hub of the region and the most famous. Rediscovered in 1709, when workers were digging a well, Herculaneum had been buried under approximately 20 metres of material, while in some areas the layers from the pyroclastic flows reached down into the earth by as much as 80 feet.

It was excavated after 1738, with nearby Pompeii after 1748.

One of the fabulous finds was a statue of Apollo Saettante (Archer), which was originally found in pieces in 1817 and 1818 and restored at that time.

In 2009 and 2010 the Getty Villa Museum in America, undertook analysis, conservation and re-stabilisation of the statue in consultation with the now re-named Museo Archeologico Nazionale at Naples as part of a cultural exchange program.

Today a replica stands once again in the courtyard of the Temple of Apollo at Pompeii, while the original statue with its 19th century additions and 21st century removals, is now secure is held in trust for the nation of Italy in the National Archaeological Museum at Naples.

The victims of this natural disaster were both mundanely and poignantly real.

They were busy setting up their houses and gardens and purchasing furniture just like we do when disaster struck.

This would have included a linen chest, an attractive inlaid stool, a practical garden bench and a baby’s crib, four of six furnishing items that miraculously survived the cataclysm, which destroyed so many lives.

They are a testimony to Roman workmanship of their time and it’s astonishing to know that the baby’s crib still rocks on its curved runners.

It most probably belonged to a couple very like the local baker Terentius Neo and his wife, who were immortalized in a beautiful wall painting from Pompeii that will also be on display. They are shown holding writing materials, revealing that they were both literate and cultured.

Were they equal partners in both business and life?

It seems highly likely, because a tradition that began in Roman times and came down through the trades for centuries in both Europe and England was that of a wife keeping account of payments from clients for her husband.

Richard Gnodde, Co Chief executive of Goldman Sachs International, who is generously sponsoring the event, said “We recognize the importance of supporting cultural platforms such as this and we were delighted to … help bring this unique experience to London.”

Herculaneum was named for the Greek hero Herakles, which in Latin is the more commonly known Hercules of Roman Mythology. It is an indication that the city was Greek in origin, much like most of the colonial settlements in the region of Campania.

It was the people of ancient Samnium, who first founded a town on the site of Herculaneum six centuries before the Christ event.

Soon after, it came under Greek control and was used as a trading post because of its proximity to the Gulf of Naples. The Samnites were one of the early tribes that inhabited the landmass we know as Italy. They had a treaty with the Romans from 354 BCE and won an important battle against the Roman army in 321 BC.

They held out against Rome and by the 1st century BCE those that remained became victims of an ethnic cleansing campaign by Roman dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 82 BCE.

Vesuvius started erupting violently and dramatically on August 24, AD 79 with superheated pyroclastic material solidifying into volcanic tuff.

It did not take very long for these twin cities of both fortune and fate to be destroyed on that terrible day, just 24 hours.

Then they were covered by the mists of time as survivors spent years trying to build their lives elsewhere.

Owing to their different locations Pompeii and Herculaneum were covered over in different ways.

This fact affected the preservation of materials remaining at each site, including human remains.

Romans were good at engineering and many people fled to underground areas like vaulted underground cellars and sewerage tunnels trying to escape the inevitable.

One of those vaulted areas had remained sealed for years and not disturbed at all since work at Herculaneum first began.

What really happened to the inhabitants was a major mystery for archaeologists to solve and the shocking answer would not surface until amazingly, 1981 .

This was when the bones belonging to over 143 individuals were first found in arcades crafted from concrete and situated in the area that was the original shoreline of the Mediterranean, which has today retreated due to flows from Vesuvius extending the land mass.

The excavations turned up more skeletons, some in the beach area including one dubbed the “Ring Lady” named for the rings on her fingers.

Some incredible jewellery was also found such as a gold snake bracelet, along with other skeletons, as people had just enough time to gather their most portable and valuable possessions to take with them.

It was the largest discovery of Roman human remains ever found in one place together.

It represented a unique group for academic study purposes and an opportunity to gather information about the demographic structure of both individuals and a community at the time of the tragedy.

Herculaneum became a foremost mortuary archaeology site enabling scientists to study the remains in minute detail and, with all the advantages of being able to use modern technology and modern forensics.

The skeletons found huddled together most likely gathered in the vain hope of being rescued by boat, which was entirely logical and something we would do; flee to the sea.

One mother was found bending protectively over her child, as if trying to offer it comfort. Beneath her are the tiny bones of a foetus, indicating that she was seven months pregnant.

The skeletons showed signs of thermal shock from temperatures that were close to one thousand degrees Fahrenheit. They all had suffered an excruciating death; virtually boiled from the inside out.

Because they were in such an outstanding state of preservation scientists were able to gain all sorts of information about their health and quality of life; the food they ate, their size and strength, their physical health, such as teeth and hair, as well as interesting facts we may not otherwise consider.

They were for instance affected by the pollution of their time.

It was caused by the burning of organic oils in terracotta lamps, which provided the light source for Romans after dark. The constant exposure to the fumes released caused lesions on the ribs of both adults and children[1].

They also had head lice, quite common in ancient Rome. Excess scratching causes depressions in the skull and while it may sound a minor affliction, it wasn’t. People were known to have died from lice infestation [2] such as Scylla the Dictator and the Greek poet Alcamon.

To have lived with illnesses and afflictions would have meant too an impact on the community as a whole. Considerable time and funds would have gone into Roman health care.

As people were affected physically, so would there have been an ongoing psychological impact as well.

Work continues at both sites today and recent excavations at Herculaneum have also uncovered beautiful and fascinating artifacts.

They include finely sculpted marble reliefs, intricately carved ivory panels, jewellery and fascinating objects some of which were found in one of the main drains of the city.

The famous ‘fugitive’ casts from in and around Pompeii of some of the victims of the eruption were exhibited.

A family of two adults and their two children, they were huddled together, just as in their last moments under the stairs of their villa.

The most famous of the casts is that of a dog, fixed forever at the moment of its death as the volcano submerged the cities.

Many of the objects on view in England in 2013 never been shown outside Italy before.

Today volcanologists and other experts continually monitor Vesuvius, which is still an active volcano, for signs of unrest.

Many believe the six million residents, who populate the area today like their ancestors in ancient Herculaneum and Pompeii, are sitting on a time bomb.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012-2014

*Translation of the account of Pliny the Younger who found his Uncle Pliny the Elder suffocated on the beach near Pompeii where he had gone to rescue his friend Rectina, the wife of Bassus whose villa lay at the foot of Mount Vesuvius

Capasso, L., 2000, Indoor pollution and respiratory diseases in Ancient Rome, The Lancet, Vol. 356, Iss. 9243, pp. 1774

Capasso, L., 1998, Work-related syndesmoses on the bones of children in Herculaneum, The Lancet, Vol. 352, pp. 1634.

Capasso, L. & Capasso, L., 1999, Mortality in Herculaneum before Volcanic Eruption in 79 AD, The Lancet, Vol. 354 pp. 1826.

Capasso, L. & Di Tota, 1998, Lice Buried under the ashes of Herculaneum, The Lancet, Vol., 351, Iss., 9107, pp. 992

[1] Capasso (2000)

[2] Capasso & Tota 1998

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