Friday, April 9, 2010

Pompeii's frozen victims on display

24 August, AD79. The day one volcanic mountain came to life and two cities met their deaths.

Pompeii and the nearby settlement of Herculaneum were consumed by a mixture of heat, falling pumice stone and ash.

Mount Vesuvius, about 9km (5.5 miles) away, had exploded, sending a mass of volcanic debris high into the air, which then landed like a military bombardment on the citizens of the two cities below.

Estimates of deaths in both places range from between 10,000 and 25,000.

In Pompeii, the effects of the cataclysm were especially vivid, leaving as they did a city almost frozen at the moment of its expiration.

So fast and vast was the tonnage of volcanic rock and dust dumped on its residents and livestock that many were killed on the spot.

Skeletal remains

It is these emblematic "figures" of Pompeii that are now the subject of an extraordinary new exhibition.

They are the skeletal remains of the victims that have been preserved under a thin veneer of plaster, to give them their life form.

"Until now, these figures have been dispersed around Pompeii itself, or to other museums around the world," says Grete Stefani, the organiser of the exhibition at the nearby Antiquarium de Boscoreale, a five-minute drive from Pompeii.

"They've never been seen together."

The process of unearthing the bones and preserving them in plaster has gone on since the 19th Century, when archaeologists really began the work of prising out Pompeii's buried existence.

One of the exhibits shows a figure, probably a man, clasping a step.

Another shows a man with his arm over his mouth, most likely trying to hold back the choking dust.

A third shows a family, their arms raised, as though trying to fend off the calamity that was engulfing them.

Trapped animals

The figures are exactly how the archaeologists found them buried in the layers of ash.

Once discovered, the cavity containing the skeleton is filled with a liquid plaster mixture.

After 48 hours the plaster hardens and the life-like figure can be lifted out.

Not even the animals had the speed to escape.

The exhibition includes a pig and alongside a dog, his four legs contorted together to form one point and his mouth open.

You can see a tooth and a collar, and even make out the lines of his fur.

"The detail of the figures is remarkable" says Mrs Stefani. "They have been preserved at the very second of their death."

On another figure you can make out the creases of a scarf they were wearing as they struggled to breathe.

One of the saddest is the figure of a child.

The exhibition reflects the merciless, indiscriminate nature of the volcanic eruption.

The authorities decided to mount the displays partly because of the ignorance surrounding the figures.

"Many visitors to Pompeii thought they were sculptures, the work of artists," says Mrs Stefani. "But they are the remains of real people".

'Human archaeology'

The work of preservation falls to Pompeii's workshop of experts.

Set in a former villa in the city, the team prepare the plaster mixture.

Too thin and it would not be strong enough to support the skeletal frame, too thick and it would obliterate the detail of the person or animal being covered.

"It is a very delicate operation," says Stefania Giudice, one of the preservers working here.

"The bones are very brittle, so when we pour in the plaster we have to be very careful, otherwise we might damage the remains and they would be lost to us forever."

A little more than 100 figures have been preserved in plaster, though not all are on show at the exhibition.

That is out of a total of about 1,150 bodies that have been discovered in Pompeii.

Some are not suitable to be covered as they have already been damaged, either by the debris of the volcano, or when they were unearthed.

As a third of Pompeii has yet to be excavated, more human and animal remains could be found.

Where possible these, too, will be treated with the plaster, removed and preserved.

To preservers like Ms Giudice, it is more than just a job.

"It can be very moving handling these remains when we apply the plaster," she says.

"Even though it happened 2,000 years ago, it could be a boy, a mother or a family. It's human archaeology, not just archaeology."

The exhibition lasts until the end of the year.

Kennedy, Duncan. 2010. "Pompeii's frozen victims on display". BBC News. Posted: April 5, 2010. Available online:

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