The Roman city of Pompeii, on the western coast of Italy, was a thriving port in the first century. The region’s fertile soil made it a leading source of agricultural products, including grains, nuts, and fruits, particularly grapes that were made into wine. But life in this prosperous city came to an abrupt halt in 79 A.D., when Mount Vesuvius erupted and covered everything with 13 to 20 feet (4 to 6 meters) of pumice and ash.
Pompeii lay buried and forgotten until its rediscovery about 250 years ago. The artifacts found there were well preserved because of the lack of air and moisture. Archaeologists have carefully excavated the site and uncovered many artworks and objects that indicate what life was like for the residents of the city in the first century.
Selected artifacts from Pompeii comprise an exhibit that has toured the world. We caught the exhibit today, near the end of its run at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, WA, the final stop on its current tour.
This terracotta cup was found in a house in Pompeii packed in a wooden crate with 89 similar pieces and 37 lamps. It indicated the high quality of North Italian ceramics manufactured from the end of the first century and throughout the second century A.D.
This bust is thought to represent the 10-year-old Gaius Caesar, grandson of the Emperor Augustus. It was found in Herculaneum, a city near Pompeii that was also destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The marble bust is thought to have been made between 63 B.C. and 14 A.D.
Pompeii was a vibrant, cosmopolitan city because of its trade-route location. By 79 A.D. many wealthy Roman citizens had holiday villas there furnished with artworks, such as statues and mosaics, and painted walls called frescoes:
a painting that is done on wet plaster
During the excavation of Pompeii, archaeologists used plaster to fill in the voids that had once held human bodies. These plaster casts reveal the exact positions people were in when they died.
I was a classics major in college and had read the surviving letter by Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius. In the letter he describes not only the eruption itself, but also the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, an admiral of the Roman fleet who died trying to rescue Pompeii’s citizens from the devastation. As much as I enjoyed seeing the many artifacts and artworks, the location of these body casts at the end of the exhibit reminded me of the sudden extinction of so many lives. (Estimates of the population of Pompeii at the time of the eruption range from 11,000 to 20,000).
I am glad to have had the opportunity to view this exhibition. It features not only human cultural achievement but also the massive power of the natural world.