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Pompeii is one of the must-see sights of Italy alongside Herculaneum, a town that also perished when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. The city is important to us because of the way Vesuvius both destroyed and preserved it, but in the 1st Century AD it had little special significance. If there were any tourists, they were more likely to be strolling the beach at Herculaneum – and perhaps hoping for a glimpse of Emperor Caligula at his luxury villa – than in the markets or industrial wharves of Pompeii.
Locally, however, Pompeii was an important inland port, a place of trade, industry and business, famed for its fermented fish sauce. Its people were a mix of wealthy elite, professionals and slaves. Inscriptions attest to bakers and bath-attendants, grape-pickers and prostitutes. The recent decipherment of writing tablets from Herculaneum suggests that over half its population were slaves or freed slaves. It reveals the true extent of this infamous aspect of Roman society.
A wall painting of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife from Pompeii (credit: British Museum)
There is no reason to think Pompeiians were anything other than typical Roman citizens, so their remains can probably speak for many across Italy at the time. While they suffered the diseases and discomforts that still affect us today, in general their health beyond childhood (higher infant mortality is likely) was not greatly different from our own. However, one study suggested an important exception to this rule: the state of teeth and jaws point to poor dental hygiene.
The slopes of Vesuvius were known for its fertile soils and wine from Pompeii was an important export – at least one wine jar made it all the way to England. But people were less aware of the volcano’s dark side. The city had been badly damaged by severe earthquakes 15 years before the eruption. Yet none of this was connected to volcanism. There was nothing to fear…
Since its discovery in 1748, people have been digging up Pompeii for over 250 years. You might think there was little more to learn, but as Paul Roberts, curator of the British Museum exhibition says, if there’s one thing that recent research at Pompeii and Herculaneum has made clear, it is that “It’s not so clear”. We are far from really understanding what made Pompeii tick.
Pompeii today (credit: British Museum)
Modern science and archaeology have replaced the old-style treasure-hunting for fine artefacts and wall paintings. In the process, everyone has realised how much knowledge was lost through earlier work – and how much more we can learn now. The excavation of houses still sealed under ash has stopped. Yet researchers from up to 20 nations are engaged at Pompeii, recording and analysing their predecessors’ excavations, bringing new science to old finds and making new discoveries as they try to save and restore what remains.
Take gardens. Early students had questioned whether the lush gardens pictured in wall paintings could have been real. But detailed examination of those parts of Pompeii that were not built over revealed how much of the town had been green, from kitchen plots to orchards and vineyards, as well as impressive formal gardens with pools and fountains. Recent work has proved the use of a huge variety of trees, flowers, herbs and vegetables through the study of wood, pollen, seeds and other plant remains.
It has been estimated that at least a fifth of the entire town was green space. It is microscopic finds like this that are now helping to show what was happening in Pompeii, from fish-salting to horse-stabling. A recent excavation found the remains of a tethered mule, lying slumped against its feeding trough surrounded by bedding and fodder. Subsequent analysis of this revealed grasses, wayside plants, cereals, olives and walnuts. Recovering such detail is slow work. A University of Cincinnati project uses iPads in the trenches to keep up with the huge amount of data its excavations produce.
A cast of a Pompeii citizen that was petrified in volcanic ash (credit: The Art Archive)
The body casts at Pompeii are justly famous, but it is the skeletons themselves that are now proving to be the more informative. Studies that include medical scanning of casts, and searches of centuries of museum collections have shown it was not just the weak and infirm who failed to escape Vesuvius’s wrath. In just one house, 13 healthy people died: their ages suggest grandparents, parents and their children, one of whom was a pregnant teenager.
Vesuvius made a mess of Pompeii, but now it faces a second death. Walls, paintings and floors meant to last only a few decades are exposed to the feet and fingers of millions of tourists and torrential rain. Pompeii’s great need is conservation, but the task is daunting. Restoring and protecting over 15,000 buildings, five acres of wall paintings and uncountable quantities of artefacts might seem impossible, but this is where developments in archaeology can help.
All teams now working at Pompeii and Herculaneum use digital scanning and recording. Not only are these techniques cost-effective, but the results are more precise than was possible with pen and paper. The American Pompeii Quadriporticus Project shows what can be done.
The Pompeii Quadriporticus Project aims to recreate the structure of the city's gymnasium using digital scanning technology (inset)
This team of archaeologists have recorded a large rectangular open space enclosed by a colonnade backed by small rooms – probably a gymnasium – with 3D laser scanning, photogrammetry (determining the geometric properties of an object from images) and masonry analysis. The result is a convincing 3D image. Digital manipulation of the completed model will allow it to be studied in ways that are all but impossible on site. It will be a virtual archive, a form of digital conservation easier to preserve than the original.
These records can be used to print physical replicas in 3D – even full-scale models that could be opened to tourists, while the real ruins are saved for posterity. Such a replica has recently been completed of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, to stunning effect.
Mike Pitts is a writer and the editor of British Archaeologymagazine. This article first appeared in the March 2013 issue of Focus.
Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum shows at the British Museum from 28 March - 29 September 2013.
This article is about the 2003 docudrama. For other works with similar titles, see The Last Days of Pompeii (disambiguation).
Pompeii: The Last Day is a 2003 dramatized documentary that tells of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24 79 AD. This eruption covered the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in ash and pumice, killing everyone trapped between the volcano and the sea. The documentary, which portrays the different phases of the eruption, was directed by Peter Nicholson and written by Edward Canfor-Dumas.
The film was directed and produced by the BBC in co-production with TLC.
This was the highest rated specialist factual programme of the year with an audience of 10.3 million and a 40% share.
The documentary tells the story of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius from the point of view of assorted inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum whose names and occupations are known, including a local politician and his family, a fuller, his wife, and two gladiators. Historical characters include Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger.
It draws heavily on the eyewitness account of Pliny the Younger as well as historical research and recent discoveries in volcanology. Extensive CGI was used to recreate the effects of the eruption.
Most of the people who were in Pompeii when the fourth pyroclastic surge hit died instantly or slowly suffocated to death.
- The death throes of those in the family of Julius Polybius are based upon the 1975 discovery of the skeleton of a heavily pregnant girl (Julia) surrounded by her family, in the actual House of Julius Polybius. Julia's husband, Sabinus, is shown to have most likely poisoned himself and presumably was the skeleton lying near the foot of the bed Julia's body was found on, along with the bones of her fetus.
- The death of Stephanus the Fuller is based upon a cast found of a man in the fetal position (the cast is locked up in an onsite warehouse for safekeeping).
- The death of Stephanus' wife, Fortunata, is based upon the discovery of the body of a rich bejeweled lady in the gladiator barracks, alongside those of gladiators.
- In Herculaneum, the death throes are much simpler, as most people were found during excavations either on the beach or inside the boat houses. Additionally, unlike Pompeii, when the pyroclastic surges hit Herculaneum, people there were instantly killed, whereas most Pompeians slowly suffocated, although some died instantly.
A computer-generated rendering of the eruption is inaccurate: the depictions of the Temple of Jupiter, facing the forum, and the Temple of Apollo, across the portico to the left, are inaccurate, and the depictions of the state of the porticoes around the forum are questionable, as they all appear intact during this recreation of the 79 eruption. In contrast, it is widely known that at least the Temples of Jupiter and Apollo had been destroyed 17 years before, during the 62 earthquake, and they had not been rebuilt by the time the city was finally destroyed in the 79 eruption.