Pompeii: Experiencing its life and death
A warm summer morning had given way to an even warmer early afternoon in the Mediterranean coastal city of Pompeii on 24 August in the year 79 when, six miles to the northwest, the big mountain called Vesuvius began to rumble.
And rumble, and rumble some more. And then…
The mountaintop erupted, blasting molten ash into the sky, much of it raining down on the streets, the buildings and the 20,000 or so citizens of Pompeii. As people cried out in anguish and alarm, frantically (and fruitlessly) scurrying for cover and/or to locate loved ones, Vesuvius continued to explode, with poisonous vapors and molten debris surging into the atmosphere and landing in the city. Its people, with virtually no chance of escape, were engulfed by streams of lava that reached as high as 570 degrees Farenheit.
“You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men,” wrote Pliny the Younger, an 18-year-old eyewitness to the destruction from Misenum, a luxury resort town west of Vesuvius, and across the Bay of Naples from Pompeii.
“Some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.”
Within 24 hours, all life in Pompeii had stopped, buried under 12 feet of ash, pumice and rock. The shaken denizens of the Roman Empire who lived nearby saw no reason to rebuild the area, nor did anyone else. Not until 17 centuries later did Pompeii begin to reappear, when excavation efforts slowly uncovered what had been a thriving seaport and symbol of the good life.
Today, Pompeii is visited by 2.5 million people a year who walk through its streets, survey its houses and shops and, yes, its brothels, stand in its public forum, and contemplate the destruction wrought by the mountain that looms in the distance.
Some also visit the nearby Naples National Archaeological Museum that houses thousands of amazingly-preserved artifacts and artwork (due to the lack of air and moisture) — as well as, chillingly, body casts of citizens (made via forensic technology) that depict their positions at the moment of death. Some reach to the sky in desperation, some vainly try to shield family members, and others simply lie flat as if resigned to their fiery fate.
For Southern Californians who have yet to visit Pompeii or the Naples Museum, the California Science Center is offering a sampling of the collection from the museum, but also a multimedia, multisensory experience that captures the city’s life and its death. Indeed, “Pompeii, the Exhibition,” running through Jan. 4, offers a remarkable and humbling look at what nature both destroyed and preserved.
Exhibit guests tour various displays that feature more than 150 artifacts, from kitchen implements to gladiator armor, with accompanying charts, maps and videos that re-create daily life in Pompeii. Visitors learn, for example, that homeowners almost never set foot in the kitchen (that was for servants and slaves); that “entertainment” was provided almost exclusively by males (whether actors or gladiators); that women forced to live their lives as prostitutes adopted exotic-sounding nicknames in a desperate attempt to achieve dignity or status. (Caution: The exhibit includes a room devoted to erotic art that is definitely not for younger visitors.)
The artwork, jewelry and sculptures — from bronze, marble, gold and more — delight and amaze, both in their beauty and in the fact that they survived such a horrific episode (small glassware in particular). Each carries a detailed description that includes its approximate age (most from the first centuries, B.C. and A.D.).
And, once visitors have experienced Pompeiians’ daily life, they experience the overpowering destruction that befell the citizens, via an hour-by-hour video re-creation of events on that fateful day, accompanied by rumbling sounds and steamy “smoke.”
Then they enter the room of “body casts” (created by filling depressed areas of the excavated city with resin or plaster) that depict people of all ages and sizes. The cast of a pregnant woman is particularly riveting, if only to suggest that —amid the decadence that Pompeii was noted (and, some say, punished) for — protecting an unborn child’s life is an instinct as natural to a mother as breathing.
The tour (approximately one hour for most, though one may linger and observe as desired) ends in a room devoted to activities for youth, an admittedly brighter (and more brightly-lit) way to end the visit.
For those who have lived through the forces of nature — and in earthquake-prone Southern California, that includes millions — “Pompeii, the Exhibition” can elicit powerful and even painful memories, no doubt. Yet, as sobering as it can be, the exhibit can also offer teachable moments for all, certainly in its historical and scientific aspects, but also from the spiritual — recognizing and appreciating the truly awesome nature of God’s creation.
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