A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Giving new life to some of Pompeii’s dead
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.
Giuseppe 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.
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