British Museum Opens Exhibition On Life And Death In Pompeii And Herculaneum

Pompeii
Today the British Museum in London opens what is sure to be the hit exhibition of the year.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” examines the daily life of the Roman world, as it was preserved in two cities buried under volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Through fine art and mundane objects, we get to see what life was like for ordinary Romans.

Romans like the baker Terentius Neo and his wife, whose likenesses were preserved in a fresco on the wall of their house. “Baker” is a misleadingly humble term for Terentius, who was obviously well-to-do, and who had a literate wife who is shown as his business partner.

The exhibition is laid out like the House of the Tragic Poet, one of the homes excavated at Pompeii. A video reconstruction prepared by Giunta Regionale della Campania shows what it looked like when it was being used. As you wander through the atrium, bedroom, kitchen and garden, you learn about different aspects of Roman culture.

The ash that buried the cities and killed its inhabitants preserved frescoes and graffiti that show us a snapshot from the time. Slogans from an election held a few months before still adorn public walls, including a painting of a candidate distributing free bread. Other graffiti boasted of sexual conquests or lost love.

A large amount of the exhibition space is devoted to brightly colored frescoes that once decorated interior walls. Some show religious or natural scenes. One room that overlooked a garden had walls painted like a garden, giving the illusion of being outside.

%Gallery-183881%While much of the focus is on the upper classes, several displays show how the more common Romans lived. In the kitchen, for example, we see the workplace of the slaves. Here, there’s a simple altar for them to worship their gods, and a worktable covered in carbonized food. One blackened loaf of bread bears the stamp, “Made by Celer, the slave of Quintus Granius Verus.”

The kitchen also revealed an odd fact about Roman homes – it was where the toilet was usually located. One wonders how many Romans died because of this ignorance of microbiology.

Another oddity of Roman life was how sexual the art was. What we may see as crude today was considered funny or magical to the Romans. A young woman wore a pendent in the shape of a penis to ensure luck and fertility. A phallic wind chime was supposed to bring luck to the household. Then there’s the sculpture of the god Pan porking a goat. Nobody is sure what the Romans were thinking when they made that one.

The final part of the exhibition is dedicated to the sobering casts of the dead. When the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by the eruption, they rotted away, leaving their ghostly shapes in the hardened ash. Archaeologists have poured plaster into many of these cavities to reveal men, woman, and children in their death throes. A particularly poignant scene is of a family of four. One child still sits on the mother’s lap, while another, who could have been no more than four, lies nearby, her face so well preserved as to be recognizable.

These bodies will be one of the main draws to the exhibition, but I have to admit to a certain guilt at my voyeuristic fascination with them. What does our obsession with these casts say about ourselves? Cambridge historian Mary Beard has written a thoughtful essay on this and comes up with no easy answers.

This sort of blockbuster exhibition is something the British Museum does well, and this is one of their best yet. From the high art to crude graffiti, from naughty sculptures to a baby’s cradle, the breadth and richness of Roman life are brought to life in an experience no one with an interest in the ancient world will want to miss.

“Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” runs until September 29.

Trekking mobility chairs make planet accessible to all

mobilityTravelers challenged with mobility issues often had to take a back seat to adventure travelers in the past, viewing dreams-of-a-lifetime from a distance. Now, dedicated companies and organizations are making destinations around the planet accessible to all, even in unlikely places.

Visiting Italy‘s iconic attractions can be a daunting task for the handicapped. Ancient ruins, preserved and protected to maintain their integrity, are far-removed from today’s accessibility laws that bring ramps, assistance and modified facilities. In the past, challenged travelers would most commonly view popular sites such as the Roman Forum, Pompeii and Herculaneum from a distance. Now, a specially designed trekking-wheelchair makes destination immersion possible for many disabled travelers.

“It is our great pleasure to make all of Italy accessible to everyone who would like to visit. This chair is the first of its kind and opens doors to those challenged by walking on our country’s ancient streets,” says Program Director Stefano Sghinolfi of Rome and Italy Tourist Services.

mobilityUsing a one-of-a-kind chair, every Italian archaeological site can be visited by those with mobility challenges, no matter what the ground surface might be. Using a seat and frame with only one wheel, two arms in the front and back to support the chair when not in motion and allow for movement up or down hills.

The chair is easily rolled and carried by two trained guides and offers 360° degree maneuverability around obstacles such as centuries-old stones or holes and ancient streets or steps.

Another trekking wheelchair is the Black Diamond TrailRider, developed for the British Columbia Mobility Opportunities Society (BCMOS) in Vancouver, B.C., Canada.

The single-wheeled TrailRider looks like a cross between a rickshaw and a wheelbarrow and has opened the door to wilderness areas in the United States, Canada and the Himalayas. Two times, this one has made the 19,334-foot ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.


Erotic bathhouse art in Pompeii

Visitors to the ancient Roman city of Pompeii are already familiar with the eye-popping art in the brothel, but most miss another naughty site–Pompeii’s suburban baths.

The changing room in these baths had cubbyholes for storing clothing. Each one was decorated with lively scenes of straight sex, group sex, oral sex, and just plain acrobatic sex. The example to the right, with two men and one woman enjoying each other’s company, is a typical example.

While many Roman baths segregated men and women, this suburban bath was a mixed one, so perhaps it served as a place for amorous trysts. Another theory is that the pictures were advertisements for prostitutes. Both men and women in ancient Rome uses prostitutes, although of course the majority of customers were men. A third theory holds that the pictures were a way to make the customers remember where they left their clothes.

“Where’s my toga? Ah yes, in the cubbyhole with the bisexual orgy.”

A large amount of erotic art has been found in Pompeii, from explicit graffiti to phallic dinnerware, and the city had a reputation for looseness before Mt. Vesuvius erupted and covered it with ash in 79 AD. The ash preserved many artifacts and buildings, making Pompeii and her sister city Herculaneum two of the archaeological treasures of the world.

The baths were closed for decades after their discovery, first out of prudishness and then for conservation work. Only small groups with special permission may enter, so you’ll need to book through a tour. You can check out all the images here, and if you want to wander through the city check out Pompeii on Google Street View.

Herculaneum on display in Italy

I can still picture the Time Life book photograph of a child turned into stone from the eruption of Vesuvius. It was one of those elementary school images that captured my attention and hasn’t let go.

Okay, I think it was a Time Life book and I think the photo was a child, but for sure that eruption in Pompeii centuries before I hit 2nd grade has had the power to show just how fragile we are when it comes to natural disasters. Pompeii wasn’t the only town that met with destruction from Vesuvius’s handiwork. Herculaneum was also destroyed. According to this USA Today article, Herculaneum was where wealthy Romans liked to frequent because of its seaside views.

There’s an exhibit of the artifacts that have been uncovered over the centuries at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy. Among the bounty are large marble statues and smaller bronze ones that highlight the opulence of the time.

The exhibit is up through April 13. This Wikipedia photo is of a boathouse in Herculaneum.