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Family History

Giving new life to some of Pompeii’s dead


Monday, February 01, 2016


Pompeii Casts Murals House Golden Bracelet


The three-story House of the Golden Bracelet on the Vicolo del Farmacista was one of the most opulent in Pompeii, its walls covered with vibrant frescoes depicting theatrical scenes and imitating expensive marble paneling, its floors paved with intricate black-and-white geometric mosaics. At the rear of the house lay a verdant garden with a splashing fountain and quiet pools, its natural beauty echoed by wall paintings depicting oleander, viburnum, arbutus, bay, palm trees, irises, roses, daisies, and poppies, home to doves and house sparrows, a swallow, a golden oriole, and a jay. From the terrace was a view of the sea, whose breezes cooled the house during hot Mediterranean summers.


The morning of August 24, A.D. 79, was relatively quiet in Pompeii, perhaps disturbed only slightly by a series of earthquakes common enough to the region. But by just past noon things drastically changed, when, according to the first-century Roman writer Pliny the Younger, a cloud of “unusual size and appearance” spewed from nearby Mount Vesuvius. Soon ash, pumice, and stone began to fall, flames could be seen leaping from the mountain, buildings shook and swayed, and, in places, although it was still day, there was “darkness blacker and denser than ordinary night.” For two days, the volcano erupted ferociously, on the first day expelling millions of tons of debris, burying Pompeii at a rate of roughly six inches an hour. Thousands of people were trapped: “You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling to their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices,” writes Pliny. On the second day, surges of superheated rock, ash, and gases, called pyroclastic flows, rushed down the mountain at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour, flattening the buildings that remained standing, and scalding or perhaps suffocating those who had not already been buried. By the end of August 25, more than 2,000 people likely had died in Pompeii, and at least 15,000 had probably perished in the region.


Pompeii Casts Snake BraceletGiuseppe Fiorelli became director of excavations in Pompeii in 1860. Realizing that it was not just structures, paintings, mosaics, and artifacts that had been covered by volcanic debris, but also plants, animals, and people, Fiorelli developed a new method for recovering these once-living specimens. When excavators encountered voids in the hardened ash and pumice created by the decay of organic material, they poured plaster into them. They then left the plaster to dry, after which they removed the material around the plaster, revealing the bodies of victims at the very moments of their deaths.








Casts of Pompeii

The Many Lives of an English Manor House

A major restoration project at a grand estate reveals centuries of a nation’s history


Monday, December 21, 2015

Knole House Aerial View


If every home tells a story, then Knole House is a tome. By any measure one of the five largest houses in England, this country estate in Sevenoaks in west Kent has seen six centuries of British history, and the reigns of some 30 monarchs. Knole House has been the backdrop for all the ups and downs of the English aristocracy and for the lives of the countless tradesmen, butlers, maids, cooks, and footmen who kept dwellings like it running.


Located just 30 miles outside London, the house occupies four acres, surrounded by 26 acres of gardens and fields, and another thousand that make up a medieval deer park. If the house sprawls, it is with good reason. From Sir James Fiennes to the Archbishop of Canterbury to King Henry VIII to many generations of the Sackville family, each new owner has added to its size and complexity, which has resulted in a multilevel labyrinth. It is difficult even to get an accurate count of all the rooms—the best estimate is around 420, connected to courtyards, staircases, attics, and seemingly miles upon miles of corridors. “Knole has almost always had too many rooms,” says archaeologist Matthew Champion. “Each owner kept adding to it to increase their status, but they could never keep on top of using them all.”


Vita Sackville-West, the early-twentieth-century writer and inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, grew up in the home and described it as resembling “a medieval village with its square turrets and its grey walls, its hundred chimneys sending blue threads up into the air.” Today, one wing is occupied by Robert Sackville-West, 7th Baron Sackville, and his family, but the house is owned and managed by the National Trust, to whom it was donated in 1947 by the 4th Baron, Charles. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Trust is conducting a major five-year program of restoration that is offering an unprecedented look at the house and grounds, its construction, and the lives of many of those who passed through its halls.


The project involves lifting floorboards, inspecting rafters, and repointing walls—an excavation of the house itself. Archaeologists have found, behind the walls and across the gardens, stories of the house’s occupants and employees, stories that reflect the changing moods of the country through time: the economic impact of the War of the Roses, the paranoia following the Gunpowder Plot, England’s obsession with sport, the arrival of modern technology—and, of course, generations of family intrigue.


The history of the site of Knole House goes back to well before the first block of dark-gray local Kentish ragstone was laid in 1445. Within the parkland around the estate are what appear to be the remnants of Bronze Age fields, patterns of irregular plots around one acre in size, according to Al Oswald, a landscape archaeologist from the University of Sheffield. A low hill in front of the house, called Echo Mount, may even be topped by a Bronze Age burial mound. “There’s been lots of speculation about which ‘knoll’ the place name refers to,” says Oswald. “I just wonder if this burial mound is the knoll, the local landmark, from which the house took its name.



England’s Grand Estate

Top 10 Discoveries of 2015

ARCHAEOLOGY's editors reveal the year's most compelling finds


Monday, December 07, 2015

Top Ten Opener ImageThis year’s Top 10 Discoveries reach us from vastly different cultures and across eons. Some raise new questions about what it means to be human and what separates us from our species’ relatives. Others bring us face to face with individual people, their travels, their faith, their hold on power. Several, covering matters as diverse as slavery and the origins of art, come to us via newly applied scientific methods. Taken together, this year’s discoveries present an array of insights into endeavors, large and small, spanning millions of years.