In the Presence of Death at Pompeii

I once spent an entire a year flying to remote parts of the world to see mummies.  I was researching and writing a book that became The Mummy Congress,  and during this time I got to know the preserved dead exceptionally well.  I watched them being unwrapped from their linens in Egypt, poked and prodded with fiber optics in Italy and haggled over in China.  And I feel obliged to state something clearly.   I have never seen a mummy that struck me as ghoulish or macabre or indeed anything other than what it was generally was–a dead human being who had been mourned, prepared, arranged and preserved.

I  can’t say the same, however, of the plaster casts that archaeologists have made of  Pompeii’s victims,  a thought that occurred to me this morning as I read on the BBC website of a new exhibit of these objects at Antiquarium de Boscoreale, a short drive away from Pompeii.

Archaeologists produce these casts whenever they find skeletal remains lying in cavities in the volcanic rock that still blankets much of  Pompeii.  They pour plaster into the hollow and pry it loose when it hardens.  And what often emerges is an object not quite human,  and not quite artifact, something that captures in eerie detail the final moments of one of Pompeii’s inhabitants during the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  Once seen,  such casts are not easily forgotten.

I saw them for the first time a few years ago, when Cambridge University archaeologist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill took me to see the one of the grandest and most opulent homes in Pompeii,  the House of Fabius Rufus.   As I recall (and please correct me, someone,  if I am wrong),  this immense villa had never been open to the public,  and Wallace-Hadrill and I spent nearly an hour admiring its exquisite frescos and its private bath.

At one point in this behind-the-scenes tour,  I was climbing down a shadowy stairwell and I stumbled on something obstructing one of the steps.   I stopped  and peered down to see what I had nearly fallen on.   It was a plaster cast of  a human victim sprawled across the stair,  a slave perhaps who had no chance to flee and who had literally perished on the spot.  At that moment,  I felt a deep, penetrating sense of the ancient tragedy,  and although two thousand years had passed since the toxic volcanic gases had swept through the city,   I could see all too clearly a life being snuffed out right in front of me.

As Wallace-Hadrill and I continued roaming the house,  we came across several more of these casts lying on the floor,  in various attitudes of death.  The archaeologist,  an expert on the architecture of Pompeii,  paid no attention to them,  as if he scarcely saw them any more.   But a terrible chill came over me each time I found another huddled or splayed form,  another a human life cut short.

All this came to mind today when I read of a new exhibit.  The show marks the first time that museum goers will see such a large collection of the casts in one spot.

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