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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Spend ‘A Day in Pompeii’ at the Museum of Science

Published: February 3, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

Imagine a city buried under pyroclastic debris, a city frozen in time for nearly 2,000 years. That city is Pompeii and right now you can see preserved pieces of life from two millennia ago at the Boston Museum of Science. The exhibit, “A Day in Pompeii,” which leaves Boston after Feb. 12, contains pieces from Pompeii that shed light on how people lived in the first century C.E. of the Roman Empire and educational videos detailing life in Pompeii.

Pompeii, a city located to the southwest of Mount Vesuvius in Italy (near Naples), was completely buried by Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 C.E. When one thinks of volcanoes, one often thinks of flowing rivers of lava. Vesuvius’ eruption was pyroclastic, however, meaning that there was no lava; the city was buried under soot, ash and other bits of debris from the exploding mountaintop. While this was surely horrifying for the people still in Pompeii at the time of the eruption—many had fled due to a series of earthquakes preceding the eruption—it is a boon to archaeologists because the pyroclastic debris perfectly preserved many artifacts and prevented many thieves from being able to make off with Pompeii’s treasures.

The exhibit, for which one must buy a special ticket, contains two well-made videos. The first, which you will see right when you walk in, explains some of the commonalities of Roman life in Pompeii, explaining common jobs, religious beliefs, etc. This video is useful to put the rest of the exhibit into context. The second video, however, is much more engaging; it shows a computer simulation of what happened to Pompeii in the two days it took for Pompeii to erupt completely. It begins with an earthquake and then shows buildings toppling as heavy debris rains down on them and eventually ends with the burying of Pompeii.

It is quite amazing how much artwork survived Vesuvius’ eruption; the exhibit hosts murals painted in vibrant colors and statues that show the careful attention ancient sculptors paid to musculature and detail. When people think of Roman sculptures, they often imagine the stark white marble that we see today; many people, however, do not realize that in ancient times these sculptures were painted with bright colors and would have actually been quite gaudy. The eroding hands of time often strip these statues of their colors but the Pompeii exhibit shows a female funerary statue on which one can still see her piercing blue eyes and her cascading yellow robe.

There is also a fabulous garden fresco, originally painted on a dining room wall, which shows a typical garden scene. It is, however, when one moves closer that one can see the intense detail in the mural. Each leaf was crafted with skill and dedication, each vine has a life and vibrancy all its own, and each flower seems almost to emit a sweet smell.

Even more entrancing than the art, however, is the collection of objects that show daily life in Pompeii and, by extension, ancient Rome. There is a carbonized loaf of bread that still has its baker’s mark on it. There is a bracelet with a Latin inscription on it that says the jewelry was a gift for an “ancilla,” a serving girl. There are game dice that look exactly like the dice with which we play today. Also, like today, cheating was very much in vogue and one pair of dice are weighted.

The exhibit shows us how the people of Pompeii cooked, cleaned, dyed their clothes, ate their food and so on. There are even several pieces of medical equipment that look terrifyingly similar to modern-day medical equipment. I never realized how archaic a speculum was.
The exhibit is laid out well, with similar objects placed near each other. Most thoughtful is the placement of the bodies. The body casts of Pompeii are quite famous because, by finding a gap in the hardened pyroclastic debris where a body decayed leaving only the bones, one can pour plaster into the hole and create a statue of the deceased person that shows their final moments. The Museum of Science exhibit places all the body casts—which were actually casts of the casts, so no original bodies—in a room at the back that one can easily forego. While the music played in the room was a little too gloomy and depressing, the layout is quite peaceful. The music does not need to be gloomy as viewing dead bodies is fairly grim on its own. The placement of the bodies, however, gives each a lot of space and the lighting is soft and seems respectful of the dead.

The body room contains a cast of the famous cast of the dog from Pompeii; this cast shows a dog struggling against his chain to escape but eventually succumbing to the ash. While this is the most famous cast from Pompeii, the exhibit also has a cast of a man lying dead across some stairs and a pig, on which you can still make out ribs. The most amazing of the Pompeii bodies are two women holding each other. The cast was so well accomplished that you can make out the folds in the women’s clothing and the jewelry they were wearing; there is even some question as to whether one of them was wearing a belt or if her dress was bunched around her waist to allow her to run.

The back room also contains a cast of skeletal remains from Herculaneum. Herculaneum was a city to the northwest of Mount Vesuvius; when Vesuvius erupted, Herculaneum was swept away by rivers of boiling mud. This cast contains approximately 20 skeletons occupying a space about the size of a Ziv common room. Unlike the Pompeii bodies, archaeologists could not use the cast method, so all that remains are the bones. Of course, if this sounds like too much for you to handle, it is really easy to avoid this back room and just continue seeing the daily-life objects of Pompeii.

All in all, “A Day in Pompeii” was amazing and I highly recommend that everyone visit it before the exhibit moves to another museum. The Museum of Science is right near MIT and has many other fascinating exhibits for you to peruse during your expedition.

Pompeii provides a unique look into the daily-life activities of first-century Romans and, while some of these activities may seem boring at first, they help explain how we got to where we are today and they show us the intricacies of our forebears.