Daybreak, August 25, A.D. 79. Under a lurid and sulfurous sky, a family of four struggles down an alley filled with pumice stones, desperately trying to escape the beleaguered city of Pompeii. Leading the way is a middle-aged man carrying gold jewelry, a sack of coins and the keys to his house. Racing to keep up are his two small daughters, the younger one with her hair in a braid. Close behind is their mother, scrambling frantically through the rubble with her skirts hiked up. She clutches an amber statuette of a curly-haired boy, perhaps Cupid, and the family silver, including a medallion of Fortune, goddess of luck.
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But neither amulets nor deities can protect them. Like thousands of others this morning, the four are overtaken and killed by an incandescent cloud of scorching gases and ash from Mount Vesuvius. In the instant before he dies, the man strains to lift himself from the ground with one elbow. With his free hand, he pulls a corner of his cloak over his face, as though the thin cloth will save him.
The hellish demise of this vibrant Roman city is detailed in a new exhibition, “Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption,” at Chicago’s Field Museum through March 26. Organized by the office of Pompeii’s archaeological superintendent, the exhibition includes nearly 500 objects (sculpture, jewelry, frescoes, household objects and plaster casts of the dead), many of which have never been seen outside Italy.
The destruction of Pompeii and the nearby coastal town of Herculaneum is undoubtedly history’s most storied natural disaster. The ancient Roman cities were buried under layers of volcanic rock and ash—frozen in time—until their rediscovery and exploration in the 18th century. Early excavators didn’t much care where a particular statue or mosaic fragment had been found and what stories might be coaxed from them. By contrast, “Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption” employs archaeological techniques to link artifacts to the lives of the people who once lived with them.
To most people today, the scope of the calamity in a.d. 79—natural forces transforming bustling areas overnight into cities of the dead—has long seemed unimaginable (if less so in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Southeast Asia’s 2004 tsunami). Moreover, the passage of time has softened the horror of Vesuvius’ human toll. “Many disasters have befallen the world, but few have brought posterity so much joy,” wrote the German poet Goethe after touring Pompeii’s ruins in the 1780s, some 40 years after its rediscovery. Indeed, Pompeii’s very destruction is what has kept it so remarkably alive. “If an ancient city survives to become a modern city, like Naples, its readability in archaeological terms is enormously reduced,” says Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of the British School at Rome. “It’s a paradox of archaeology: you read the past best in its moments of trauma.”
In the Field Museum exhibition, some of those moments are brought eerily to life by plaster casts of Pompeii and Herculaneum’s residents at the moment the eruption overtook them. The doomed couple fleeing down an alley with their two daughters (if they were indeed a family; some have suggested the man was a slave) were the first Vesuvius victims to be so revealed, although these early casts are not in the exhibition. In 1863, an ingenious Italian archaeologist named Giuseppe Fiorelli noticed four cavities in the hardened layer of once-powdery ash that covered Pompeii to a depth of ten feet. By filling the holes with plaster, he created disturbingly lifelike casts of this long-departed Pompeiian family in its final horrifying moments. It was as though an eyewitness from antiquity had stepped forward with photographs of the disaster.
Pompeii in A.D. 79 was a thriving provincial center with a population of between 10,000 and 20,000 people a few miles from the Bay of Naples. Its narrow streets, made narrower by street vendors and shops with jutting cloth awnings, teemed with tavern goers, slaves, vacationers from the north and more than a few prostitutes. A colossal new aqueduct supplied running water from the Lower Apennine mountains, which gushed from fountains throughout the city, even in private homes. But the key to Pompeii’s prosperity, and that of smaller settlements nearby like Oplontis and Terzigna, was the region’s rich black earth.
“One of the ironies of volcanoes is that they tend to produce very fertile soils, and that tends to lure people to live around them,” says Field Museum geologist Philip Janney. Olive groves supported many a wealthy farmer in Pompeii’s suburbs, as suggested by an exquisite silver goblet decorated with olives in high relief. Pompeiian wine was shipped throughout Italy. (The Roman statesman and writer Pliny the Elder complained it produced a nasty hangover.)