Northeast Times

Life and death in Pompeii

  • A fallen city: A fountain currently on display at the Franklin Institute is an example of what people would have in their house gardens, which was in the middle of each Pompeii home. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • In front of the many city homes were statues of Roman Gods and soldiers. ‘One Day in Pompeii’ is currently on exhibit at the Franklin Institute.

  • A glimpse into history: In 79 A.D., after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Pompeii, many people became literally frozen in time underneath dozens of feet of ash and volcanic mud. This man died covering his face from the intense heat.

  • An example of the city’s cookware is also on display.

  • Another cast of a person that died falling on the stairs. Behind him, is a photo of the excavation site in Pompeii as he was found with several others.

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 www.fi.edu for in­form­a­tion. ••

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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