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Pompeii: Frozen in time

They never saw it coming.

Or perhaps they did. But by then it was too late for the thousands of residents in the idyllic city of Pompeii.

As far as anyone knows Aug. 24 in the year 79 started normally in the Roman city that sat in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. Perhaps an earthquake woke late rising residents who paid it little attention.

By the next day the city lay buried under 12 feet of ash. Anyone who hadn’t made it out died where they fell, instantly killed by hot gas and ash from Vesuvius.

For nearly 1,700 years the city and its entombed inhabitants lay buried and forgotten. When the city was rediscovered in 1740, the archaeologists of the day found a city that had simultaneously been destroyed and preserved by the same cataclysmic event.

They also found something perhaps unique in the field of archaeology. While the human remains were long gone, they had left behind hollows in the now hardened volcanic material. By pouring plaster into the voids the long gone citizens of Pompeii took shape again, revealing the very moment of their deaths.

Six resin copies of those plaster casts are on display in “Pompeii: The Exhibition,” opening Saturday at Pacific Science Center in Seattle. The eerie casts are only a small part of the show that brings to life the once luxurious city of Pompeii.

This is the last American stop for the touring show from the Naples National Archaeological Museum. The artifacts all come from Pompeii or its neighboring cities that suffered the same fate.

The exhibit opens to a stylized re-creation of a Roman villa. Taking center stage is a life-size marble statue in the Polykleitos style. It stands, contrapposto, in a re-created fountain where it would have graced the entry to a plush villa. The owner of the home would have conducted business matters in the large foyer.

“It would be a place where the homeowner could show off their wealth,” said Lisa Marchisio, the center’s exhibits operation manager.

Nearby is an elaborate wooden safe to hold some of that wealth. On the walls are colorful and lively frescoes uncovered in the home of one M. Lucretius and the House of Naviglio. They show Hercules, Bacchus and other mythological characters.

Next up is the villa’s central garden where the family would have relaxed or dined al fresco. A small marble carving shows four little dogs napping on one another. An elaborate marble table has winged griffins as legs and a cornucopia and cupid as decoration.

A bronze statue of a young drunken satyr once acted as a fountain. Plumbing inside the statue would have caused water to gush from his now-missing bowl.

Another display room shows off exquisite gold jewelry, brightly colored ceramic pitchers and delicate glass vessels. A bronze bathtub is a nod to the public baths of the time. Only the wealthy, in this case the Villa of Pisanella, could have afforded a private tub complete with an elaborate heating system.

Dining and cooking implements include what you might find in a 2015 kitchen. A silver ribbed pastry mold looks as if it’s ready for Jell-O. It bears the name of its owners, Helvius Amandus and L. Herennius Rusticus. Other implements include frying pans, grills and ladles.

“These are not very different from what I use every day,” Marchisio said.

If food trucks had existed in 79 A.D. they would have been popular in Pompeii. Some 300 thermopolia (restaurants) existed in the city. Large amphora that once held wine or olive oil are on display.

“They were the original fast food places. You could go to different vendors and pick out food,” said Katelyn Del Buco, the center’s public relations manager.

“There was a lot of trade that went on. I like to refer to Pompeii as the Tacoma port of the Roman empire,” Marchisio said.

The taggers and graffiti artists of today would have felt at home in Pompeii. Restaurants were full of graffiti, as were public areas. One inscription for the apparently popular gladiator Celadus read, “the man the girls sigh for.”

Gladiator bouts could attract 20,000 spectators. On display are bronze helmets and shin guards, some with elaborate detailing of the Trojan War. They were found in the city of Herculaneum, destroyed along with Pompeii. Though most of the gladiators were slaves they were treated like elite athletes.

One optional and clearly marked section of the show is a re-creation of a Roman brothel. Inside the screened off area is a collection of art and everyday implements with X-rated embellishments. The center is taking pains to make sure that school groups bypass the area, Del Buco said.

The show closes with the body casts. But first a “reveal room” has visitors watch a video that immerses them in the events of Aug. 24, 79. Starting in the morning and then moving into the next day, the scene shows the destruction of a Pompeii neighborhood. Visitors will feel the floor shake, the wind from a villa as it collapses and the clouds of smoke (the theatrical variety) as ash and gas overwhelm the city.

After the screen rises visitors enter the room where the human casts are displayed. Though they are copies of casts of voids (think copy of a copy of a copy), the lifelike figures are unmistakably human. The anguish of the victims’ last moments is almost palpable. It’s believed that the 570 degree temperatures caused instant rigor mortis. The figures seem to have been petrified before they died.

“You can see they were not prepared. They didn’t see this coming,” Del Buco said.

A male figure was one of 13 found in an inn’s vineyard. He leans on his right arm, head and chest raised. A pregnant woman, found lying in an alley, rests her head on her right arm.

In the show’s exit vestibule PSC has created a display on Washington state volcanoes. It’s a much smaller version of the exhibit at the Washington State History Museum.

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