The last days of Pompeii

Last modified: 12/22/2011 12:00:00 AM
The dead live again in the Boston Museum of Science's "A Day in Pompeii," an exhibit that brings back both the destroyed Italian city and its residents.

Disaster struck towns surrounding Mount Vesuvius in Italy on Aug. 24, A.D. 79. Roman citizens living there likely didn't know that the mountain looming above their homes was a volcano. They also didn't know that the earthquakes leading up to that day were an indication that an eruption would follow.

When it erupted, Mount Vesuvius sealed everything and everyone in its path beneath 70 feet of lava.

Pompeii, the most famous of the destroyed cities, has been discovered and rediscovered since the 1700s. Not only does it offer unique and extraordinary insights into the people and culture of that time, but it offers a chance to see the residents themselves.

Plaster body casts of the city's residents were created by Giuseppe Fiorelli, an Italian archeologist of the 1800s, who poured plaster into cavities found within the lava. As these casts reveal, bodies of people and animals in the city left imprints in the lava. Details of these people and these animals - their clothing, their limbs, elements of their faces - are preserved in their last moments of life. Currently, there are more than 1,000 of these casts.Chance of a lifetime

For those not able to travel to Italy, the Museum of Science in Boston offers the chance of a lifetime: the ability to see actual artifacts and replicas of body casts from Pompeii itself.

"A Day in Pompeii" is the collaboration of four science centers throughout the United States, the Italian archeological group in charge of preserving Pompeii, and a science center in Melbourne, Australia. The exhibit combines artifacts chosen specifically to highlight daily life in ancient Pompeii with brief films and the option for an audio tour.

The traveling exhibit will remain in Boston through February. It premiered in New York, traveled to Boston, and will continue to Cincinnati and then Denver.

While the artifacts and general content remain the same at each stop, the various science centers have the freedom to design their own presentations.

As Paul Fontaine, vice president of education for the Boston Museum, said, "Designing (the exhibit) was part of the fun." He described it as a "storyline."

Boston's exhibit begins with an enormous botanical fresco behind a statue of Venus. By its very placement within the exhibit, one cannot help but feel that it was designed to welcome visitors, as they might have been welcomed into someone's home almost 2,000 years ago.

There is a marked organization to Boston's presentation: one that walks visitors through a home in Pompeii, through business and life outside of the home, and finally through examples of how they remembered their dead. The storyline within Boston's exhibit celebrates the beauty and life that was enjoyed in that city, rather than the destruction that brought it to an end.

Smaller artifacts are displayed behind glass in raised cases, and on these cases are numbers for the device used on the audio tour. This device enables you to enter any number anywhere in the exhibit to hear more about that particular set of artifacts.

A brief film takes us through a computer-generated home and part of the city as it may have appeared in A.D. 79.

One of the surprising details it offers is that laundry was dropped off at the ancient equivalent of dry-cleaners. Perhaps more surprising are the communal efforts used to whiten clothing.

The film explains that jars were left throughout the city, into which anyone (presumably men) could urinate. These jars were collected at the laundry, and the ammonia from the urine was used to whiten clothing.

Asked how anyone could determine this, Fontaine said that archeology is "part puzzle."

"If you can record where everything is found," he said, "then you can begin to tell the story."

Archaeologists recorded specific types of jars at various public places within the city. These same jars were recorded en masse within the laundries. And how did one know that the building in question was a laundry? Signs indicating its function were found on the outside of the building.

Leaving the film and returning to the exhibit, there are statues, more frescoes, metal lamps, even a marble table chosen by Fontaine himself. Moving from artifacts, furniture and artwork found in homes and gardens, visitors see evidence of food preparation. One of the more remarkable items is a replica of carbonized bread - someone's initials carved into a section of the loaf.

We are shown examples of Roman coins, a medical kit, gladiator attire, and a scale for business exchanges. We are able to see funerary items and funerary statues.The body casts

Perhaps the most powerful pieces at "A Day in Pompeii" are the body casts. Unlike the rest of the exhibit, the room in which they are housed is darkened, somewhat apart from everything else. The body casts lie upon raised beds amidst a sea of stones. They are positioned so that one can walk around almost all of them.

These casts are visible proof of these ancient people and enable us to connect with them in a more visceral way than any other artifact. Evidence of how these casts affect people is heard in the hushed tones of everyone visiting the room.

In a corner is a replica cast of skeletons found in Herculaneum, a neighboring city. Unlike the citizens of Pompeii, the people of Herculaneum had more time to escape. They were not subject to the ash and debris that befell Pompeii. Those unable to escape were killed by the pyroclastic flow, an incredibly hot and fast-moving wave of gas.

The reason behind displaying casts from Pompeii and skeletons from Herculaneum is to demonstrate the different effects these two cities experienced on the same day from the same volcanic eruption.

These skeletons provided the first chance to actually study people from that time in history. Romans cremated their dead. These skeletons gave archaeologists a window into their nutrition and their health.

Another film in an adjacent room animates the stages of that eruption and how it affected Pompeii.

One leaves the artifacts of Pompeii to enter a room filled with images and information on current active volcanoes throughout the world. In it, we are reminded how prevalent volcanoes are globally and what tools we've developed to help us - in today's society - avoid similar disasters.If you go

Consider getting your ticket online at the Boston Museum website. Entrance into the exhibit is timed, and often those time-slots are sold out. The website indicates which timeslots are free.

For those who want more detail as they walk through the gallery, an audio tour is available for $3 or $4 more.

The show runs through Feb. 12 at the Museum of Science in Boston.

For more information, visit

Insider tip: The best time to go is Friday nights. The museum is open until 9 p.m.

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