Friday, 18 October 2013

Pompeii and Herculaneum: A Late Review and a Bit of Background

I finally got round to seeing the British Museum's Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition last month (just before the exhibition closed) and I have to say, that was fantastic!

I'd finally been able to plan a day when I would be in London so was able to book in advance and walked straight into the exhibition. After walking along a dark winding corridor (purposefully reminiscent of the Mausoleum of Hadrian in Rome?) you arrive at an audio-visual introduction to the exhibition, detailing the history of the excavations and the kinds of objects that have been found.

Most exciting of all was how the exhibition space had been planned - constructed in the shape of a 'standard-type' Roman house, (I think perhaps modelled on the plan of the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii), each 'room' of the exhibition reflected the objects and function of that part of the house.

The exhibition certainly focused on the 'Life' in Pompeii and Herculaneum, bringing together an atmospheric street-front with a detailed domestic interior, much of which included items from museums all over Europe, so it was particularly thrilling to see them all in one place, which really gave a good impression of what real Roman life was actually like.

A carbonised loaf of bread, stamped by the baker, from the cucina (kitchen) of a Roman house.
The 'Death' aspect was certainly more serious, and took up less of the exhibition, and perhaps rightly so. When I was last in Pompeii (not that regular an occurrence, honest!) I was with a group of Classics students and we decided that we didn't need a map as we had studied these streets and could find our own way. Our confident attitude apparently meant that we were a magnet for American tourists, who would come up and ask "where the bodies" were. For a start, the "bodies" are plaster casts, filling the empty space caused by decayed organic matter that was encased in volcanic ash, but more importantly why, when you're visiting a very special heritage site like Pompeii, would your main concern be the physical remains of humans? It just felt very morbid. And meant that visitors were less interested in the fantastic wall-paintings and mosaics of the buildings than they were in seeing dead people. Anyway ...

I was pleased that the British Museum exhibition didn't focus too much on the 'Death' side of the exhibition, other than to point out that it was a particularly tragic event, where whole families died suddenly, as the casts at the end of the exhibition showed.

Perhaps of more interest to a specialist, is the question of 'what happened after Vesuvius?', which was not really asked in the exhibition. Well, the work of projects such as the Apolline Project, which I took part in a few summers back, aims to show that there were more settlements up and down Vesuvius than just Pompeii and Herculaneum. Evidence from a post-AD 80s site also shows that resettlement of the area, according to brickstamps, actually occurred within 15-20 years after the well-known eruption. Certainly the Vesuvian eruption was a tragedy, but life had to continue.

The 'Villa with Baths', Pollena Trocchia, excavated by the Apolline Project.
All in all I was very excited to actually attend the exhibition, and very impressed with its scale and treatment of the topic. I was a little disappointed by how crowded it was, making it difficult to move round, but that perhaps shows how much this exhibition captured the public interest (and how people want to feel as though they have got the most out of their money!)

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