The Life, Death, and Excavation of Pompeii

Who hasn’t heard about Pompeii? One day, it was a thriving Roman city; the next, it was buried under twenty feet of volcanic ash — and there it stayed, undisturbed, for the next 1,500 years. But who were the Pompeiians? How did the eruption happen? And how do we know any of this today?

Life in Pompeii

Though we don’t know exactly what daily life was like in Pompeii pre-eruption, we can learn a lot from what was left behind. Thanks to the volcanic ash, we have the rare chance to see what life was like in 79 A.D. 

Mt Vesuvius 79 AD eruption
Map of the area, courtesy of MapMaster, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Pompeii first came under Roman influence in the 2nd century B.C.E., but it was part of the hellenistic sphere as far back as the 8th century B.C.E. By the first century B.C.E. and until its volcanic demise, the city was a resort of sorts for the fancier classes of Roman citizens. It was a bustling, busy place, with cafés, taverns, factories, brothels, villas, public bathhouses, a library, and more, including the first stone-built amphitheatre of its kind in Italy. All of it sood on the lava plateau that would eventually cause its doom — but until then, it was a lively place.

1958 Pompeii Amphitheatre Maurice Luyten
The amphitheatre, courtesy of Maurice Luyten, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Now divided into nine regions (regios) by archeologists, Pompeii had over 100 buildings at the time of the eruption (112 of which are currently available for touring). These buildings were absolutely covered in art. Most of this art took the form of frescoes, though there were also mosaics, statues, and more! The frescoes were varied in their content. Some showed animals; others, people (gladiators were a popular topic), and a few showed the city itself. Many depicted the gods, something unsurprising from ancient Rome. In fact, it is through the art that we know how and who the Pompeiians worshiped in their daily lives. Something easy to forget when studying Pompeii is that the people who lived there were actual people, and their religion was a lived religion that impacted their daily lives.

Mars and Aphrodite (Venus), portrayed in a fresco, courtesy of 1st century artist in Pompeii, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There is not enough time in the day (or indeed, enough remaining evidence) to discuss every way in which the Pompeiians worshiped. After all, the gods of the pantheon were not universally worshipped, nor was devotion limited to those within the pantheon. As it stands, we know that a variety of gods were worshipped. The twelve canonical gods of the pantheon were among the most common, often appearing in frescoes, murals, statues, and carvings. Other, smaller deities were frequently seen as well. One rather amusing one was the common depiction of the goddess Fortuna in latrines. Experts say that she is shown there to wish for good health and successful “movements.” Another common sight was a niche in the wall of a home; these would frequently contain busts used to worship and honor ancestors. Where the items were located (the main living area, the kitchens, or public spaces) also helped to show who was doing the worship. The artifacts found in the kitchens, for example, were often used by the house’s slaves. Graffiti, which will be discussed more later, also played a part; some shows the offerings made by the cult of Isis. 

An officiant at the temple of Isis, courtesy of Pompeii_-_Temple_of_Isis_-_Officiant_-_MAN.jpg: WolfgangRiegerderivative work: Citypeek, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, one of the most fascinating ways in which the gods were worshipped was through garlands of flowers and greens. We know that these garlands existed thanks to something very simple: nails. Many homes and public spaces contained frescoes with garlands painted looping along the top. What is telling, though, is that the tops of these loops have nails (or in some cases, depressions or holes where nails once were) in the wall. These nails were used to hang real garlands over the top of the painted ones. Though it is hard to tell what flowers were used in the garlands thanks to the aging and style of the frescoes, experts believe that lilies and roses were popular when available. The rest of the year, the devoted would just use whatever flowers and greens were in season in their personal gardens or being sold at the market. These garlands were most strongly associated with Lares (or Lararia), guardian figures widely worshipped in the city. Their image can be seen everywhere, as they appear in paintings, on alters, in niches, and more. The garlands were considered an offering to the lares, either alone in living spaces or alongside burnt offerings at crossroads. The mere fact that garlands as offerings were banned when Christianity became commonplace in Italy shows how incredibly important they were to daily worship. 

A Pompeiian street scene by Ettore Forti. Garlands can be seen on some columns. Courtesy of Eduardo Ettore Forti, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, not all art was religious, nor even official. Pompeii’s graffiti is known around the globe as an insight into the minds of people almost two thousand years ago — and shows how very little we have truly changed. Unlike frescoes, murals, and sculptures, all of which were created by talented artisans, graffiti was created by ordinary people. Many of the scribblings are insults (often calling out business owners or just insulting someone’s appearance), some are boasts (mostly of a sexual nature), and some are just about ordinary human activities (such as making bread or defecating). Some more intricate graffiti was art of the artist’s favorite gladiator. The graffiti in Pompeii is a prime example of how little human nature changes throughout the years — but that is not its only purpose.

Graffiti etched into a wall in Pompeii, courtesy of Wknight94, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Graffiti is also how we know so much about Pompeii’s sex trade. Much of it offers advice, advertises certain workers, and lists prices. This, combined with murals from brothels and the brothels themselves, depicts a hard, bleak life for sex workers. They worked in cells big enough for just one bed (which we know thanks to wooden or stone remains) with no windows or doors, just a curtain. There were also murals on the walls meant to arouse or advertise services. The names of the workers (and slaves), often found in graffiti, had Greek origins and described their features or services. For example, one called Euplia (“fair voyage”), offered her clients a “fair voyage.” Services included intercourse, cunnilingus, fellatio, and active or passive anal sex. 

An erotic fresco, courtesy of WolfgangRieger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Surprised by that last one? Remember, this is ancient Rome! There were both female and male sex workers. In the murals, the women were shown to be pale, with stylized hair, and were either naked or wearing a breast band (something of a precursor to the modern bandeau bra). Men, on the other hand, were shown to be young, tan, and athletic. Their lives were not so beautiful, however; in addition to the aforementioned cell-like work rooms, these workers were often slaves controlled by their male pimps and clients. Those who worked outside of brothels were usually freed slaves or poor freeborn women. Yet they provided an essential service for the society of the time, as marriages of the day were usually done by arrangement for the purpose of producing heirs, not for love or pleasure. And while adultery was illegal, sex work was not. Men were expected to turn to brothels for the types of sex and pleasure that a “respectable” woman would not perform — or to preserve their own reputations, as bottoming in a homosexual encounter was considered shameful. Without art and graffiti, we would know none of this! 

Another erotic fresco, courtesy of ancient artist, User:Okc~commonswiki, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s move on to something a bit more universal: food. Did you know that there was a fast food shop in ancient Pompeii? While it’s not quite what we would recognize today, the thermopolium (literally, a hot food drink shop), is a fascinating peek into ancient quick meals. Remains of ducks, goats, pigs, fish, and land snails were found in containers under the counter. There was also a wine container with ground fava beans in the bottom, which were used to change the taste of the wine. Nicias, presumably the man who owned the shop, was found lying on what used to be his cot. His dog was also found nearby, curled up by a fresco of a dog. Other frescoes on it include a rooster, ducks, and a nymph on a horse. Another decoration found was a piece of graffiti insulting Nicias. However, that was not all; archeologists also found nine amphorae, a bronze patera, two flasks, and a ceramic table olla, all items used by the apparent Nicias. The food here was similar to the remains indicated in other locations — albeit in a much more pleasant way. Study on faecal material showed that the Pompeiians in 79 A.D. have similar metabolisms to modern Italians and ate very well (with young pigs being a delicacy), with slightly different fat levels than modern day diets. Casts and remains have also revealed that they had great teeth, likely due to their diets being healthy and low in sugar — though the fluorine in the water near the volcano certainly helped!

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The thermopolium, kindly courtesy of the Archeological Park of Pompeii

In many ways, the Pompeii of 79 A.D. was similar to the modern city. In addition to their hot running water from the aqueduct and the volcano’s heat, they also had an intricate traffic control system. This system consists of many one-ways streets laid out in a grid pattern. We know this thanks to the grooves in the stones along the streets, carved there by hundreds of cart wheels turning in one direction thousands of times. The wheel ruts in the roads also helped with the mapping of the city’s roads. However, foot traffic was also common in Pompeii. The roads were often covered in filth or mud, something through which no one wants to walk. Hence the stepping stones that line the streets at every intersection. These stones provided a way to get from raised sidewalk to raised sidewalk without stepping into the muck that lined the streets. A pedestrian might use these stones to get to the local tavern, where they might gamble. Though gambling was illegal in Pompeii, this law was not strictly enforced. As a result, it was a part of everyday life. It was a common sight to see adults gambling on dice and board games. Children, who had no money with which to gamble, would use nuts to wager when they played. 

Another Pompeiian street scene, courtesy of Eduardo Ettore Forti, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Before turning to the eruption, let us take a moment to talk about the amphitheater. As mentioned before, this was the first stone-build structure of its kind in Italy, as well as the oldest known building in the city. Hooks indicate that there was a pulley system that controlled an awning to provide shade for the crowd when the hot Italian sun beat down on them. Said crowd had a strict hierarchy of seating by class and gender. The amphitheater itself was used as a place for celebrations, ceremonies, and (of course) entertainment like gladiator fights. It is also home to what is known as the Amphitheater Riot Fresco. This art, excavated in 1869, shows the 59 A.D. fight between Pompeiians and the Nucerians, their longtime rivals, in southeastern Pompeii. This fresco, while it does indicate the patron’s opinions and is therefore biased in its depiction, is nonetheless a relatively faithful cityscape. Some details (like the cemeteries outside the city) are left out, but the topography is remarkably accurate. It is the closest we have to a snapshot of what the city looked like at the time of the art’s creation.

The amphitheatre in question, courtesy of Sarahhoa, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Eruption

Mt. Vesuvius is part of the Campanian volcanic arc, and has been erupting for thousands of years. It looms over Pompeii, and is the only active volcano in mainland Europe. There had not been an eruption for some time before the 79 A.D. one, so it may be understandable that there were so many losses. How were they to know that the earthquake in 63 A.D. was a warning rumble? 

One depiction of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, courtesy of Pierre-Jacques Volaire, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The assumed date of the eruption is August 24th, 79 A.D. Despite popular belief, the majority of the population did not perish during the 36-hour-long eruption. In fact, most of the 11,000-12,000 people who lived in Pompeii were able to escape ahead of time. The 2,000-some people who remained behind, however, did die in Pompeii, with 16,000 overall dying in the surrounding area. The eruption buried the city under twenty feet of volcanic ash and extended the distance to the sea by two kilometers. The plume of smoke from the volcano was eighteen and a half miles high, which is almost a third of the way to space! Given all of that, it might be surprising to learn that most who perished did not choke on smoke and ash, as previously believed. They actually died from the heat of a pyroclastic surge, which was around 1000°F. The proof for this extreme heat is found in the melted tin, charred wood and food, and the vitrified (rather than saponified) brains of the dead. At least it was a quick death! The reason that the bodies are twisted as if in pain is not due to drawn-out suffering, but instead to a cadaveric spasm caused by heat shock. This, combined with the heavy layer of ash, worked to preserve the bodies even better than modern embalming would. 

The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, courtesy of John Martin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We know what happened thanks to a single surviving first-person account from Pliny the younger. He writes about his uncle, Pliny the elder, who attempted to sail across the bay to rescue the citizens of Pompeii. His uncle was summoned there by Rectina, wife of Tascus (though there is much debate about how her message got to him so quickly) — and failed miserably in helping. He and his crew arrived at Pomponianus at Stabiae and were met by panicking locals. In an attempt to calm them, Pliny the elder asked for food and a bath, then went to take a nap. When he awoke, however, it was to chaos; the courtyard was full of ash and pumice stone. Seeing that this was not the time to be calm, they all ran for shore with pillows tied to their heads as protection. They made it to the beach, but were unable to escape due to the wild waves. They suffocated on the poisonous fumes. Pliny the younger goes on to describe the horrific screaming. Everyone was calling out for their loved ones, unable to see when the sky turned dark with ash. Though the flames and lava were far away, Pliny the younger kept having to stand up to shake off the ashes so he would not be buried alive. He said that he thought that both he and the world were dying.

A statue of Pliny (Plinius) the Elder, courtesy of Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Those who had escaped returned once the ash and smoke cleared, but were unable to recover any survivors or items of use, so they left. We know that the refugees went to other cities, as we have found gravestones that contain common Pompeiian names elsewhere after 79 A.D., inscriptions identifying a certain person as being from Pompeii, and items (including religious objects) similar to those found in Pompeii. Many went to the north side of the Bay of Naples, and there was much intermarrying in the refugee community. However, this information really only reflects the rich inhabitants. There is no data on non-Romans, slaves, and migrants who also escaped the eruption. Researchers hope to use DNA and isotope analysis from the bones we have to better identify people and understand what happened to them after the eruption. 

The ruins of Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius in the distance, courtesy of Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China, PDM-owner, via Wikimedia Commons

And what an eruption it was — though not really. Though a tragedy, this does not even make the top five list of deadliest eruptions. It is only so well-known and well-remembered because of its remarkable preservation.

 

The Rediscovery and Future Study

The year was 1748. The Roman cities of Herculaneum and Stabiae had already been rediscovered during digging for a new palace; now it was Pompeii’s turn. The future King Charles III of Spain, eager to get his hands on the treasures of the past, encouraged excavation. This excavation helped inspire the neoclassical revival of the 18th century, and many of the rich in Europe wanted reproductions or actual artifacts from the ruins for their homes. They also built etruscan rooms like those found in the homes of Pompeii. This seems like a lovely homage, but in reality, this caused the so-called excavation to be more like looting, as those finding treasure were more interested in the items themselves than their historical significance. We may never know exactly how much information was lost due to their carelessness. 

Excavations at Pompeii, courtesy of François-Louis Français, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1806’s excavation was, if possible, worse. Joseph-Napoléon Bonaparte, the famous Bonaparte’s brother and a king of Spain, decided to excavate the city that they now knew to be Pompeii. They stripped frescoes off the walls, damaging them in the process, and moved them to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale de Napoli. Decorations, furniture, and statues received much the same treatment, with little to no care for the history that this relocation destroyed. Perhaps most egregious was the outright destruction of some erotic art (sculptures in particular) due to the excavators’ prudish ways. The erotic art that survived and was relocated still sits in the gabinetto segreto. Back in the day, there were metal shutters installed over the erotic frescoes, and men were allowed to view it for a fee. As of 2005, the gabinetto segreto is its own gallery. 

Some non-erotic art that survived, courtesy of Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1860, something finally went right for historical preservation: Giuseppe Fiorelli figured out how to make the plaster casts that we now know as the bodies of Pompeii. The team with whom he was working discovered that the centuries-old ash had hardened into the shape of the long-decayed bodies, leaving indentations so precise that we can look into the face of history. Realizing the implications of this, they drilled small holes into the hardened ash and poured the plaster in carefully. This was a delicate procedure, as doing it wrong could damage the bones. But most of them were successful, which is how we know so much today. At present, some of the earlier casts need repairs, so this allows researchers to examine the bones inside the casts. They’re also scanning the casts to make 3D models of them for posterity and easier examination. These scans have the added benefit of allowing them to learn more about the bones without risking any damage. This is how we know about their aforementioned excellent teeth! All of this is incredibly valuable from a historical and academic perspective — and even more so from the human perspective. Archaeologists working on the project have talked about how moving it is to study these remains, to hold them. It can be overwhelming, they’ve said, to remember that these were people. These were living, breathing people, and we can learn about them. Learn how they lived and died — and we can also learn about their pet dogs, as some casts have been made of dogs as well!

A cast, courtesy of Sparrow (麻雀), CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
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The dog, courtesy of Deror_avi, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, archeologists aren’t just working on preserving the bodies of Pompeii; they’re also hard at work on the city itself. In addition to the ever-present risk of looters, Pompeii is under attack from modern pollution, side effects from tourist visits, and time. Let’s take a moment to discuss these challenges and what’s being done about them. 

The ruins, courtesy of Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Looters are the most obvious, and also one issue that mostly takes care of itself. There are security measures in place, of course; it is a historic site, after all. But people who take pieces of Pompeii tend to return them, complaining of a curse. Even things so small as mosaic tiles, shards, some stones, pieces of plaster, and lapilli are mailed back from around the world with notes begging for forgiveness. One Canadian woman sent back five such items because her family had experienced horrific financial and medical luck for the fifteen years she’d had them in her possession. Another couple did the same, begging for the spirits of Pompeii to forgive them. The team working on Pompeii encourages these reports of curses in hopes that it will discourage more people from stealing. Of course, the main hope is that people will soon realize that stealing cultural heritage is wrong. 

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A mosaic from the Casa dei Mosaici Geometrici; mosaic pieces are a common victim of theft. Kindly courtesy of the Archeological Park of Pompeii

Modern pollution is a big threat to Pompeii, particularly where zinc and lead are concerned. One study on the topic (linked below) discovered that the stepping stones of Pompeii are being slowly eaten away by zinc and lead. The zinc comes from rubber, mainly from the shoe soles of tourists and from tire dust. The lead came from petrol, which is fortunately no longer a major concern. Leaded petrol stopped being available in Italy as of 2002, so the vehicles on site are no longer emitting it. Of course, these factors affect more than just the stepping stones, but that was the focus of the study. From an ecological perspective, there is also concern for it entering the water supply and causing harm to local marine organisms. Efforts are being made to decrease the overall pollution, but it is always an uphill battle.

A street in Pompeii, featuring the stepping stones, courtesy of Luigi Bazzani, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Time is the toughest opponent when it comes to the preservation of Pompeii, as it is ever-present and unyielding. Archeologists are working on repairing the city wherever they can, but they need to be careful not to cause further damage — or over-repair anything, causing it to lose what made it part of Pompeii. To this end, they have been using a variety of technology and programs to create digital models of the entire city, inch by inch. This is a time-consuming, meticulous process, but one that is well worth the effort. Lasers are used to scan everything from cracks in the walls to the contents of the old, charred scrolls that were found in the remains of the library. 

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An excavation site, part of which has been mapped, courtesy of MAKY.OREL, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Heritage-Building Information Modelling (H-BIM) program, alongside several others, serves to collect information into a database. This allows for the creation of a 3D model of its current state, which is endlessly useful. Several people can access the information simultaneously, which means that much more studying can be done and more information can be gleaned. This model also lets them build a rough timeline of the city, meaning that we have a way to take a peek into ancient city building! For example, thanks to the researchers working with this system, we now know that several of the roads were in the process of being repaved when the eruption happened — along with how the roads were prepared for it! Additionally, the H-BIM helps the team to keep track of degradation, plan repairs, keep information safe, and even simulate the effects of natural disasters! 

Another street view, courtesy of Luigi Bazzani, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, restorations are not always successful. Earlier attempts to preserve frescoes used wax and oil, which actually sealed moisture against the face of the art and helped destroy it. Currently, such art is being carefully cleaned with the help of water and lasers. Then there are people working to revive activities from Pompeii. Cédric Durant is working to reconstruct Pompeiian wine presses in order to taste what wine was like in that time period. Apparently, the citizens of Pompeii left their wine open to oxygen, as they liked the taste of oxidation. 

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Wine jugs from the thermopolium, kindly courtesy of the Archeological Park of Pompeii

But what of Mt. Vesuvius? Isn’t that the most obvious danger? In a way, yes. The most recent eruption happened in 1944 and destroyed the town of San Sebastiano. There were twenty-six fatalities, but the town has since been rebuilt. The volcano is due for another eruption soon, but when is unknown. The current technology in place allows for a two-week warning, and there are contingency plans in place for volcanic events. However, there are some doubts as to their validity; at three million people, it is the most heavily populated volcanic area in the world. The volcano is under constant supervision, both for eruptions and landslides. Only time will tell what Mt. Vesuvius will do to Pompeii and its still-thriving neighbors. 

The view of the Mt. Vesuvius 1994 eruption from Naples, courtesy of SMU Central University Libraries, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

But let’s end this on a high note: A parade chariot was recently discovered in one of Pompeii’s northern suburban villas! It is in excellent condition and was constructed from iron, bronze, tin, and wood, with intricate carvings. Archeologists have already poured plaster to get a cast of its original shape, including the rudder and seats. They currently believe that this was likely used by elites in ceremonies, and was either driven through the streets or in the amphitheater. Unfortunately, we do not know much about its surroundings due to destruction caused by looters’ tunnels; the nearby horses are unable to be cast because of this damage. However, this is still exciting news. Even after all these years, we are still discovering new things about Pompeii — and with every item we find, we learn a little more about history. We here at Echoes of History can hardly wait to see what is discovered next.

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The parade float/chariot, kindly courtesy of the Archeological Park of Pompeii

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