Pompeii

February 10th, 2012

Many moons ago, when I was a lass of 15, I saw a documentary about Pompeii and decided I wanted to become an archaeologist. I loved the idea that I could at least partially reconstruct the life of a human just by looking at bones. Unfortunately for that dream, I soon discovered that archaeologists have to do, like, sciencey stuff (and probably math too [the horror!]). But the fascination with Pompeii and Herculaneum has lingered.

So I was thrilled when I found that Boston’s Museum of Science was featuring a Pompeii exhibit. Me being me I didn’t get my act together until yesterday (the exhibit ends Sunday), but I’m so glad I did. And even happier that the exhibit permitted non-flash photography.

I loved the bright colors in the frescoes:

 

The small sculptural artifacts were amazingly detailed (both these sculptures were probably a foot tall):

How would you like to get to wear this (complete with currently missing somewhat garish plumage)? (Un)fortunately for you, only gladiators received this honor:

The exhibit included a life-size photograph of Pompeii’s excavated/reconstructed main street as it looks today:

I was surprised but charmed to find that vandalism is by no means a modern invention; the idea of a teenager chipping “Marcus loves Julia” into a wall makes that long-ago civilization feel less remote. Because images are silent, I always think that those civilizations were as well–or at least more stone-faced and stoic than ours. Turns out people had feelings and quirks back then too.

Click the pictures to increase their size and read the (admittedly blurry; hey, I was using my phone) text.

(One surprisingly prominent aspect of life in Pompeii I won’t be discussing here, because my grandmother reads this. Suffice it to say that sexual mores at that time were rather different from those of today. I suppose that when you wear clothes that have been bleached with human urine you have to find some way to enjoy yourself.)

But of course, the most intriguing–and haunting–items on display were the body casts.

The stories that went with the casts were fascinating:

In Herculaneum, another victim of Vesuvius, no body casts were possible. A pyroclastic surge of hot air and ash, traveling at up to 500 mph at a temperature of possibly 1500°F (though the Discovery Channel estimates it was only [only!] 900°F), incinerated all organic material instantly, leaving only skeletons:

The exhibit also included a four-minute video that showed a simulation of what would have been happening at various times during the day—from 8:00 a.m., when the sky was cerulean blue and the small plume of smoke rising from Vesuvius looked more decorative than menacing; through the afternoon, when the air was filled with smoke and ash, debris fell from the sky, and basically everything that could burn caught fire; and eventually to the early hours of the next morning, when a final (?) pyroclastic surge killed Pompeii’s remaining inhabitants instantly. (I was relieved to read that, according to the Discovery Channel, they died of instantaneous thermal shock rather than slow suffocation.) The simulation showed a huge cloud of smoke and ash racing toward the “camera,” suddenly overtaking it and causing the screen to go black. It was very moving.

I can’t show the video here, obviously, but the exhibit did include this artist’s rendering of what the day may have looked like, though it doesn’t show the debris falling from the sky like superheated hail:

I cannot imagine how terror-struck I would be; I’m sure that it seemed that the world was ending. Scenes like this are only supposed to happen in bad horror movies.

The exhibit ended with a “volcanoes today” section, showing pictures of devastation wrought by relatively recent volcanic eruptions and of volcanoes set to erupt anytime (including Mt. Rainier, whose figurative shadow I lived in for a while, and whose figurative shadow still darkens the abode of some of my favorite relatives [shout-out to the Ninjabread Men!]). I left feeling a sense of awe that nature is as powerful as it is; my myopic worldview tends to focus on, well, my myopic view of my tiny world. I see how much effort it takes to move a relatively small mound of earth with great big machines; I’m amazed when a machine generates 90 mph of wind in a 10-foot-in-diameter column so I can go indoor skydiving. A force that has enough power to blow tons (!) of rock 19 miles (!) into the sky? Unfathomable.


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