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When we think about the possessions we value and the objects that tell the most about the lives we lead, we often think big. Homes, cars, art, jewelry.
Jane MacKnight, a registrar with World Heritage Exhibitions, pored over more than 180 artifacts as she installed them at Carnegie Science Center in October to tell the story of the lost city of Pompeii nearly two millennia after it was destroyed. MacKnight fully appreciates the striking marble sculptures, intricate mosaics, and detailed frescos, all on loan from the Naples National Archaeological Museum in Italy. But none of the objects speak to her like a simple drinking glass.
Clear with a smooth surface, the glass looks like it could be plucked from a retail shelf today. Thin, yet strong, the tumbler survived centuries of burial under layers of ash and stone, but it feels as light as one of today’s cheap, single-use plastic water bottles you can crush flat after emptying.
To MacKnight, it shows the skill of Pompeian artisans who had clearly mastered glassmaking by 79 A.D. It also shows how similar eating, drinking, and other activities of daily living in the ancient Italian city were to our modern experience.
“There are beautiful statues and paintings in this exhibit, but it’s amazing to see [a ship’s] anchor that’s heavily corroded and used, fishing hooks, and other everyday items that were a part of real life,” says MacKnight of POMPEII: THE EXHIBITION, which is on view at the Science Center through April 24, 2022. “This is life preserved for over 2,000 years and that’s unusual.”
The immersive experience depicts how the sudden extinction of the bustling commercial center preserved a record of life at the height of the Roman Empire. It includes a simulation of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 A.D., and plaster casts of several of Vesuvius’ victims forever frozen in their final moments.
An Archaeologist’s Dream
Jessica Reitz, an anthropologist and archaeologist on the museum experience team at the Science Center, says the pottery, jewelry, tools, and art on display from Pompeii are vastly different from the objects she’s unearthed while conducting fieldwork.
Reitz uncovered artifacts that belonged to Native Americans in the Delaware River Gap in Pennsylvania and searched the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina, exploring the settlements created by enslaved people who had escaped their captors and were looking to build their own utopia. Objects she exposed were crusted with hundreds of years of soil and often unidentifiable until they were extensively cleaned and studied. Sometimes, they were still hard to identify due to their prolonged exposure to the elements and moist conditions.
Pompeii’s sudden burial by ash, pumice, and rocks protected it—from vandalism, looting, and the destructive effects of climate and weather. Because the city lay buried out of sight until about 250 years ago, the remains recovered there are uniquely pristine.
“The site is an archaeologist’s dream,” Reitz says. “You can walk into a room and just see what it looked like at the time. You can see interiors of homes and what they had in them, and you can still get that picture.”
Through unassuming objects—from cooking utensils and tweezers to gladiator artifacts and an explicit sculpture depicting the god Pan in an amorous union with a she-goat (the latter two are on display in the U.S. for the first time)—it’s possible to get a glimpse into how people spent their time in the first century of the Roman Empire.
“There’s a lot to be learned from their agriculture and commerce—there were 31 bakeries in Pompeii making 2,000 loaves of bread a day. They needed agriculture to survive, but they were very much about luxuries and having fun. They had villas and theaters and brothels, and I think they were very much about enjoying life.” – Jessica Reitz, anthropologist and archaeologist at Carnegie Science Center
Rather than just scratching out an existence, residents of Pompeii took in sporting events at the city’s 20,000-seat amphitheater and frequented several theaters and dozens of brothels. Occupying about a quarter of a square mile—about half the size of Pittsburgh’s Strip District or about double the size of Kennywood Park—the town boasted plentiful big-city amenities to serve not only its 11,000 to 20,000 inhabitants but also visitors from neighboring towns and those who traveled to the city for business.
At all economic levels, people had diverse, nutritious diets that incorporated fruits, vegetables, meats, and eggs. They weren’t solely focused on eating for nourishment, but also on enjoying flavors, spicing their foods with cumin, caraway, and peppercorns. Working-class inhabitants without kitchens in their homes grabbed fast food from the city’s 164 thermopolia—storefronts selling hot food and drinks.
“There’s a lot to be learned from their agriculture and commerce—there were 31 bakeries in Pompeii making 2,000 loaves of bread a day,” Reitz says. “They needed agriculture to survive, but they were very much about luxuries and having fun. They had villas and theaters and brothels, and I think they were very much about enjoying life.”
A City Made from Itself
While initial archaeological expeditions at Pompeii focused on uncovering and documenting how the rich lived, efforts in recent years have been directed at learning more about the working class and the growth and evolution of the city.
Beginning in 2005, a group of archaeologists led by Steven J.R. Ellis began excavating Porta Stabia, a neighborhood near Pompeii’s theater district that “non-elites” called home. It’s also a place where many residents perished. The team explored 10 properties that had been hastily excavated by other archaeologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, then covered over by dense foliage and largely ignored.
“Others had combed through debris and left it for dead,” says Ellis, a professor of classics at the University of Cincinnati and director of the Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabia. “At one time, the interest was only in the most luxurious properties.”
Ellis and team exposed shops, restaurants, and bars where Pompeians lived and worked throughout generations. They dug through the floors of the uppermost building shells and looked at the remnants of buildings underneath to learn how the neighborhood developed over time, noting how the properties changed in size, shape, and function.
“We’re interested in the construction and use of the buildings, and how their stories can connect to other events happening across and beyond the city,” explains Ellis. “We found structural fixtures like bar counters and subterranean vats for tanneries or fish salting factories. We could determine the area began as a workshop and cottage-industry neighborhood and, all at the same time in the first century A.D., that was abandoned and replaced with retail activities.”
That radical shift in industries corresponds with urban changes happening across other European cities in the same time period, Ellis says. People went from making products and selling them to selling things made by others, often importing the goods from outside their city.
For Ellis, the “waste” of Pompeii tells him as much about its residents as their treasures do. Walls of buildings and areas that were filled to level the ground to build floors are brimming with broken bits of pottery, lost coins, pieces of fish bones, and stones from older buildings that had been torn down. Trash and rubble were reused to make new things.
“They were enormous recyclers of material,” Ellis says. “It’s rare that we find fresh stones, clean dirt. Ninety-nine percent of what we find has been used before. The city is made from itself.”
Still More to Learn
As Ellis’ team is in the process of publishing its findings from the Porta Stabia excavation, he’s focused on exploring the dynamics of how different groups within Pompeii’s society interacted and comingled. His research shows how a shared urban experience connected people from vastly different socioeconomic groups.
“There’s an enormous difference between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. On the other hand, there is a sort of complex range of opportunities for sub-elites as well,” Ellis says. “As a people, they were more integrated economically and politically than we appreciated in the past. Their contributions to urban life are much more meaningful.”
Experts simply don’t know how many people perished when Vesuvius erupted, says Ellis, but it’s likely several tens of thousands of people, possibly more. More than 2,000 bodies have been recovered. Though many were able to flee during the early hours of the eruption when dry ash and cinders pelted the city, those who tried to wait out the disaster in their homes or shops faced a second, more deadly wave of volcanic activity.
Pyroclastic surges—the flow of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments, and scorching volcanic gases—swept through Pompeii overnight and into the next morning, immediately encasing the city’s remaining residents where they breathed their last breath. Sprawled across a staircase, propped on one arm as if trying to get up from the ground, curled in the fetal position —the plaster casts displayed in the final gallery of POMPEII: THE EXHIBITION depict adults, children, and even pets in their futile efforts at a last-ditch escape.
As the ash dried and hardened around the bodies and organic material eventually decomposed, hollow cavities remained in the ground where victims fell. In 1863, Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli discovered one such cavity with some bones inside it. He poured liquid plaster into the void in the ash and, once the plaster dried and the surrounding dirt and ash were chipped away, a detailed human form remained.
Archaeologists employed this technique to create images of more than 100 lost people in their final postures, including details of some facial features and folds in their clothing. A cast of a dog shows its studded collar. The technique is now being used to record the shapes of other organic objects in Pompeii, including wooden doors and shutters.
Approximately a third of the area within the city walls of Pompeii remains buried. While Ellis expects the hidden precincts to contain artifacts and structures similar to those archaeologists have already found, he also expects to find them in far better condition. With digs occurring from the 1750s on, parts of Pompeii have been exposed longer in the modern period than they existed in antiquity.
Having been spared exposure to tourist traffic and service vehicles, this protected, obscured portion of Pompeii will extend the life of the city for future generations to learn from. The millions of tourists who visit the site annually do exact a toll on the city’s remains—rubber soles of visitors’ shoes alone cause wear and tear to the paving stones of ancient streets. But, to Ellis, Pompeii’s exceptional ability to foster curiosity about the way others lived and pique people’s interest in history and the arts and humanities is worth the price.
“There’s an extraordinary immediacy about Pompeii. We see the plates they ate from, the mirrors they looked into, the wall paintings they gazed upon. It gives people a chance to come face-to-face with everyday artifacts of people living in another world, another time. It’s hard to really capture the power that has.”
POMPEII: THE EXHIBITION at Carnegie Science Center is sponsored by Arch Masonry & Restoration and displayed in PPG SCIENCE PAVILION™.
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