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.

Photo of the Day- In the shadow of Vesuvius

Photo of the day

Today’s Photo of the Day comes from Flickr user SummitVoice1 who tells us:

“We spent a couple of days in Napoli on our last European trip, wandering the ruins of Pompeii, where the stories of ancient Romans clutching their coins and jewelery while being engulfed by ash served as a reminder – you can’t take it with you. And I’ve always thought that the Napoli-style pizza, thick with anchovies and black olives, is the best.”

Do you have an image you would like to share with us? Upload it to the Flickr Gadling group pool. If we like your image we might just pick it to be a future Photo of the Day.


Volcanic Activity: Vesuvius Buries Pompeii

UNESCO studies Pompeii troubles

Pompeii, pompeii, Italy, italy, Roman, archaeology
A UNESCO team has arrived at Pompeii to investigate the recent collapses of ancient walls and buildings, All Headline News reports.

Two Roman walls collapsed earlier this week, and in November the House of Gladiators fell down. Authorities blame heavy rains but there’s a growing controversy over the lack of maintenance at the site.

The Roman city was buried in ash during an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. The ash kept the city remarkably preserved, making it one of the world’s top archaeological treasures.

The team will study the site and give suggestions as to how to preserve it, but the investigators have made clear that it is Italy’s responsibility to do the work. The Italian government has created a task force of archaeologists, craftsmen, and architects to shore up the walls and buildings. Considering that the last conservation project at Pompeii is under investigation for mob connections, it remains to be seen how effective this new task force will be.

[Photo courtesy user Alago via Wikimedia Commons]

House of Gladiators in Pompeii collapses


Italian Archaeologists are enraged at Saturday’s collapse of the House of Gladiators in Pompeii. The 40 ft. wide structure had recently undergone reconstruction work on its roof, which might have contributed to its total collapse during heavy rains early on Saturday morning. An even greater culprit may turn out to be the Italian Arts Ministry. The ministry’s secretary general, Roberto Cecchi, admitted the building hasn’t had routine maintenance for more 50 years.

Now archaeologists, environmentalists, and conservationists are calling for the arts minister to resign and are demanding an investigation.

The Schola Armaturarum was buried like the rest of Pompeii when the nearby Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. There is some debate about the building’s original use, with archaeologists unsure if it was a school, an armory, or something else. A series of frescos of winged Victories bearing weapons has led many researchers to draw the conclusion that the building was reserved for gladiators. Pompeii receives millions of visitors every year and while the building wasn’t open to the public, it was next to a walkway. If the collapse had happened during opening hours, archaeologists warn, people could have been injured or killed.

State prosecutors are already investigating how funding for the site has been used and if there has been any Mafia involvement. Huge cuts to arts and culture funding has prompted a Italian museum strike on November 12.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]