Holiday activity idea: explore life and death in Pompeii

The Frank­lin In­sti­tute's One Day in Pom­peii ex­hib­it in­vites vis­it­ors to im­merse them­selves in the cul­ture of a fabled an­cient Ro­man city.

  • A glimpse into history: This man died covering his face from the intense heat. ‘One Day in Pompeii’ is currently on exhibit at the Franklin Institute. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / STAR PHOTOS

  • In front of the many city homes were statues of Roman Gods and soldiers. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / STAR PHOTOS

The an­cient Ro­man city of Pom­peii re­mained frozen in time for more than 1,500 years ab­sent the touch of hu­man hands, bur­ied in a vol­can­ic tomb cre­ated by the erup­tion of Mount Vesuvi­us in 79 A.D.

But now that its treas­ures have been un­earthed and re­vealed to the mod­ern world, Pom­peii’s walls have be­gun to crumble.

Weeks of heavy rains and wind in the Itali­an coastal province of Naples have been wreak­ing hav­oc on the pop­u­lar tour­ist at­trac­tion and UN­ESCO World Her­it­age Site. Ar­che­olo­gists and ad­voc­ates have blamed mis­man­age­ment and polit­ic­al neg­lect for delays in a planned res­tor­a­tion pro­ject, ac­cord­ing to pub­lished news re­ports.

Mean­while, Phil­adelphia’s Frank­lin In­sti­tute con­tin­ues to draw throngs of folks seek­ing to im­merse them­selves in the cul­ture and the cata­strophe of the fabled city. The ex­hib­i­tion opened on Nov. 9 and will re­main on dis­play un­til April 27.

One Day presents about 150 ar­ti­facts on loan from the defin­it­ive Pom­peii col­lec­tion of the Naples Na­tion­al Ar­chae­olo­gic­al Mu­seum. The ob­jects range from af­flu­ent sculp­tures, paint­ings, coins and jew­elry to com­mon tools, cook­ware and utensils salvaged from the an­cient city.

“Un­like oth­er nat­ur­al dis­asters that des­troy all that’s in their path, nature des­troyed Pom­peii, but it also pre­served it,” said Den­nis Wint, the Frank­lin In­sti­tute’s pres­id­ent and CEO, dur­ing a Nov. 7 pre­view tour. “The ex­hib­it tells the story of the life and death of this an­cient Ro­man city. 

“The ex­hib­it gives an ex­traordin­ary look at Pom­peii’s ar­che­olo­gic­al treas­ures that are rarely seen out­side of Italy and are here at the Frank­lin In­sti­tute. … The ob­jects in­clude lifes­ize fres­coes, marble and bronze statues, jew­elry, coin and full body casts of the vol­cano’s tra­gic vic­tims.”

The le­gendary erup­tion of Mount Vesuvi­us began on Aug. 24, 79 A.D. At the time, Pom­peii was a pros­per­ous town-city of about 25,000 in­hab­it­ants at the base of the moun­tain. The set­tle­ment fea­tured an am­phi­theatre, gym­nas­i­um, baths, wa­ter sys­tem and elab­or­ate res­id­ences, many of which fea­tured cent­ral at­ria where the oc­cu­pants reveled in their Medi­ter­ranean life­style.

The city de­rived much of its wealth from its rich ag­ri­cul­ture and bust­ling mari­time port. Slavery also played a cru­cial role in the loc­al eco­nomy. Yet, some slaves were paid for their labor and could save their earn­ings to buy their own free­dom.

Pri­or to the dev­ast­at­ing erup­tion, Pom­peii had long been the loc­ale of peri­od­ic earth tremors. In 62 A.D., a ma­jor earth­quake dam­aged most of the city. Many in­hab­it­ants fled for good, but those who re­mained re­built.

They knew noth­ing of their fate. In fact, a term for “vol­cano” didn’t ex­ist in the Lat­in lan­guage they used.

Sev­en­teen years later, the long dormant Vesuvi­us ex­ploded, spew­ing ash in­to the sky and mol­ten rock in­to the val­ley be­low. Ash and em­bers rained on the city, set­ting much of it ablaze. The next morn­ing, lava flowed through the city streets, bury­ing them be­neath al­most eight feet of vol­can­ic debris.

Most in­hab­it­ants es­caped in time, but the dis­aster claimed about 2,000 lives.

In the cen­tur­ies to fol­low, the ab­sence of air and mois­ture pre­served much of the city vir­tu­ally in­tact. By the early 18th cen­tury, his­tory knew of the dis­aster from re­cor­ded wit­ness ac­counts, but Pom­peii was thought to have been des­troyed, lit­er­ally erased from the land­scape.

In about 1709, a farm­er dig­ging a well struck the an­cient theat­er of Her­cu­laneum, a town near Pom­peii that also per­ished in the in­fam­ous erup­tion. The farm­er con­tin­ued dig­ging and found the an­cient marble sculp­tures. Soon, an Aus­tri­an gen­er­al bought the land and spent the next two years dig­ging tun­nels to plun­der the sub­ter­ranean treas­ures.

For the en­su­ing 150 years, a suc­ces­sion of con­quer­ing rulers moun­ted nu­mer­ous ex­cav­a­tions of the ter­rit­ory. Some, in­clud­ing Na­po­leon’s sis­ter Queen Car­oline Bona­parte Mur­at, sys­tem­at­ic­ally sur­veyed and cata­logued their find­ings.

Since then, vari­ous ef­forts have fo­cused on un­cov­er­ing and restor­ing the prin­cip­al streets and build­ings of the an­cient city, which has sur­vived scav­engers, Al­lied bomb­ings dur­ing World War II, an­oth­er vol­can­ic erup­tion in 1944 and an earth­quake in 1980, among oth­er threats.

Today, the an­cient city oc­cu­pies about one-quarter square mile. One-third of the city re­mains un­der­ground while the ar­che­olo­gic­al fo­cus has moved from new ex­cav­a­tions to con­serving the struc­tures already un­earthed and re­search­ing the early set­tle­ment of Pom­peii.

Day­time tick­ets for One Day in Pom­peii cost $27.50 for adults and $21.50 for chil­dren and in­clude gen­er­al ad­mis­sion to the Frank­lin In­sti­tute. Even­ing tick­ets cost $18 (adults) and $11 (chil­dren). The rest of the mu­seum closes at 5 p.m. Call 215-448-1200 or vis­it for in­form­a­tion.

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