Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Casts of Pompeii

Of the thousands of inhabitants, buildings, and artifacts buried in Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August of A.D. 79—entire houses decorated with vibrant wall paintings, ovens with bread still baking inside, hoards of precious jewelry and coins—there are none so affecting as the people and animals who were the volcano's victims. In 1860, Pompeii’s director of excavations Giuseppe Fiorelli developed a way to, in a sense, bring them back to life by creating plaster casts out of the voids left by the decay of organic materials in the hardened ash and pumice. Many of the casts are in dire need of conservation, and the current archaeological superintendency is now undertaking the task of moving, conserving, and restoring 86 of the 103 casts that were made, using both traditional techniques, as well as the latest technology, to ensure that they survive long into the future as well. Below are images of some of the most compelling casts.               

  • For the first time in history, almost all of Pompeii’s casts have been moved from locations all over the city to an on-site lab where they will be conserved and restored.
  •  Many of the casts preserve people in poses that appear as if they are crawling along the ground or hiding their faces to escape the eruption’s swiftly falling debris or the rush of poisonous gasses.
  • Likely as a result of the corrosion and expansion of the iron rods once used to reinforce the casts, entire limbs have broken off some casts. The rods are now being replaced with fiberglass wherever possible.
  • Surprisingly, despite the volcano’s tremendous power and the passage of nearly 2,000 years, some bone and teeth do survive as part of the casts. Ongoing studies have demonstrated that the ancient Pompeians had a diet low in sugar and had excellent teeth.
  • In addition to people and plants, and in particular tree roots of the species growing at the time, some casts were made of animals killed during the eruption. Here the dog’s collar is still visible.
  •  After restoration in one lab, some casts were taken to a second lab to undergo CT scans. The 3-D images created by the scans are revealing details about the individuals’ remains, as well as the condition of the casts themselves.