Saturday, October 11, 2008
Life before Vesuvius's eruption!
They ate their breakfasts of bread and fruit, many of them grabbing a bite from a roadside restaurant, where terra cotta pots sunk deep into concrete counters kept food hot or cold. The rich who had their own kitchens reclined on couches and ate the food that slaves prepared for them.
People went to work selling produce, seafood, olive oil or wine. They made pottery from the reddish clay that surrounded Pompeii. They visited communal baths, where they covered their bodies with oils and fine sand,then scraped the mixture off, along with the grime.
The people of Pompeii didn't know that hot death simmered beneath the summit of Vesuvius, the volcanic mountain that towered over their bustling city. Vesuvius had been dormant for centuries, and the residents of Pompeii never connected the earthquakes that sometimes rocked their city to the mountain.
At 1 p.m. that summer day, the mountain blew.
Within minutes, a cloud of smoke and ash rose nine miles above the volcano, turning day into night, and ash rained down on the city. Within hours, ash and stones clogged roads and the nearby Sarno River, blocking escape routes. The cloud above the mountain eventually rose to a height of 20 miles, and flows of volcanic debris and steam spilled down mountain slopes, burying everything. The eruption continued for 19 hours.
In less than a day, the town was gone.
The city and its treasures lay undisturbed beneath 13 feet of volcanic mud and ash for nearly 1,700 years. In 1748, archaeologists and excavators started to uncover it. Tourists now walk the streets of Pompeii. But parts of the city remain covered.
The exhibit "A Day in Pompeii" at Discovery Place re-creates life in the days of the Roman Empire. More than 250 objects, many of which survived the catastrophic eruption that buried Pompeii, tell the story of its people. So does the film A Journey to Pompeii, which accompanies the exhibit. The film depicts daily life in which the people wore wool clothes that were laundered with clay and urine. The clay absorbed dirt, and the urine, with its ammonia, bleached the clothes.
The film also shows the effects of the eruption, with flaming rocks plunging through roofs and fires spurting.
Pompeii's location on the Sarno River near the Bay of Naples made it a seafood center and a big producer of garum, a salty, pungent fish paste made from fermented tuna, anchovies or moray eels. Potters stayed busy making vessels to transport the region's wine, olive oil and other goods.
Merchants sold millstones made from lava rock, and bakers sold bread they baked in wood-fired ovens. The bread was round and flat and stamped with the bakers' names.
One display shows a terra cotta tray, a rudimentary stove, with three curved sections that served as burners. Cooks built fires on the open tray and pushed hot coals beneath the burners. The display also includes carbonized foodstuffs found in Pompeii, including olives, fish paste, fava beans, figs and grains of barley.
The "tavern" section of the exhibit also displays fancy dinnerware and beautiful bronzes, including a pitcher decorated with the image of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. Grape leaves are twined through his hair. The handles of the pitcher and a nearby jug show a touch of whimsy; they are shaped like thumbs.
A graffiti wall, translated from the original Latin, shows what some of the residents of Pompeii had on their minds.
One inscription reads:
"We have wet the bed, host. I confess we have done wrong. If you want to know why, there was no chamber pot."
Shoppers and travelers paid for their wares and services with bronze and silver coins with irregular edges. But the gold coins that gleam from their cases were saved for a rainy day.
A section devoted to religion and the afterlife includes trinkets found in tombs and cremation urns, including carvings of dogs, small bottles, shells and coins. When a person died, coins were placed on the eyes or in the mouth so that the spirit could pay Charon, the mythological ferryman for the dead. A glass cremation urn shows a few repairs, but it is mostly intact. Other urns in bronze and alabaster stand unscathed.
Pompeii's streets were lined with modest apartments and the homes of the rich -- spacious houses decorated with statuary and frescoes, wall decorations painted on fresh plaster. Many of Pompeii's frescoes survived nearly intact. One, about 15-feet long, covers the back wall of an outdoor dining room. It depicts greenery and birds.
The tone of the exhibit changes when visitors reach the section about the eruption. Orange lights flicker in a darkened room, and ominous music plays. A wall-size depiction of The Last Day of Pompeii, a painting by Russian artist Karl Briullov, shows a scene of terror, with people cowering on the ground and hiding beneath their robes. Quotes from Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness to the eruption, run across the walls.
"A fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivery bursts of flame ... darkness fell ... as if a lamp had been put out in a dark room," he wrote.
Visitors enter a big room filled with black boxes displaying the plaster casts of eight of the victims of Vesuvius. The casts were made by a technique used by Giuseppe Fiorelli, who in the 1800s poured liquid plaster in impressions left by bodies in Pompeii's ashes. He chipped away the ash from the plaster, leaving the forms of people and animals behind.
The figure of a man, found in a gymnasium, sits with its knees drawn up and its hands over its face. A watchdog still wearing its bronze-studded collar lies twisted, perhaps in the throes of death or in an attempt to escape. The figure of a woman lies with a tunic pulled over its head, perhaps a vain protection against the choking ash. The impression was found on the road to the harbor, where many fled.