Life & Death in Pompeii & Herculaneum


So, I finally managed to get to see this much talked-about exhibition at the British Museum. Though I’d never visited these two archeological sites in Italy, I have spent a fair bit of time reading up on them during research for Drakenfeld. There are very few places that give a near-perfect picture of daily life in the ancient world, as so few are preserved so immaculately. (I can’t imagine anyone reading this blog doesn’t know what happened at these two ancient sites in 79AD, so we’ll continue with that assumption! If you don’t then, um, spoilers. Or something.)

At these exhibitions – or at least ones I’ve been to at the British Museum – it seems as if the curators want to take visitors through a narrative, which I actually quite like. It’s better than just turning up somewhere and sifting through a pile of very lovely remains. The curators have gone to painful detail in order to allow audiences to understand what it was like to live in Pompeii and Herculaneum – and to show us that there are many similarities between modern and ancient cultures. They are like us, the exhibition reminds us, which of course makes the final part of the narrative so potent. That could have been you.

After getting a general overview of where these sites are to be found, and the kind of people and nationalities of those who lived there, we’re presented with modern representations of a dimly lit Roman atrium. Portraits, busts, mosaics and various items found in an atrium, all of which come from Pompeii, are on display. Branching out from here are further sections – cubiculum, triclinio and horto, and the trinkets found within. I’m reasonably familiar with these kinds of items, having hit the Met Museum in New York before, and the British Museum’s Roman sections a good few times. That said, what’s lovely about this exhibition in particular is the arrangement and context. This was life. This is what they did. This is what they used. Here’s the smutty statues they owned. I won’t go into detail on the items, because that sort of ruins the magic in some ways, but I’m always impressed by the level of sophistication of Ancient Rome. From their engineering to the sublime craftsmanship and ornate jewellery, there’s a level of attention to detail that stands up well against comparative items today – so they must truly have been things of awe and beauty 2,000 years ago.

But from here, once life is established, it proceeds through to death brought by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Bring reminded of the facts, the statistics, and of the sheer intensity of these eruptions, is humbling enough – and then of course we see the resin and plaster casts taken of the hollows in the ash. Families huddled together. Children cowering. Babies in the ‘pugilist pose’ as their tendons retracted after exposure to extreme temperature at the time of death. Their ghosts captured forever.

And then through to the gift shops, in which the amount of Roman tea towels, penis necklaces and books is mind-boggling. Not to mention the centurion rubber ducks.

Go there. It’s a brilliant exhibition. Entertaining, fascinating and humbling. Newspaper reviews here, here and here.

Image above taken from this Italian website.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.