In the realm of archeological sites, the mention of Pompeii is highly recognized around the world as the ancient city destroyed by a volcanic eruption. It is a thrill to be at the entrance, and to tick off yet another famed site from our bucket list!
The scope of Pompeii is mindboggling. The ruins spread over 66 hectares, 49 of which have been excavated (for a comparative gauge – an international rugby field is close to one hectare in size)! The Forum greets us, as it once welcomed everyone who came to this sophisticated Roman city in its heyday. I stand riveted, surrounded by the remains of monumental buildings with great pillars, envisioning the once bustling activity in this key area for commercial, religious, economic, political and social events.
During the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD that literally blew off the top of the mountain, the city was buried under layers of pumice and ash for centuries, which inadvertently resulted in the incredible preservation of the streets and myriad of structures. We are keen to see glimpses into the lives of the inhabitants – their lavish homes, shops for all needs, a basilica for the soul, theatres for planned games and plays, and a brothel for the lustful, and of course a Roman bath for a good soak.
A lot of the damage to structures seen today was still under repair from the major earthquake that struck in 62 AD. At that time most of the city’s 20,000 citizens evacuated and resettled elsewhere, but over time some returned and it is believed 2000 men, women and children perished during the eruption.
We first seek out and peer into homes. My favourite is one with an entry of sparring gladiators fashioned from mosaic tiles, and further inside is a spacious room with fresco decorated walls. The feel of families going about their daily routine is almost tangible.
In-the-day it was customary for folks to lunch at one of these ancient versions of a snack bar, wherein for some coinage steaming nosh was scooped from inlaid clay pots. It was a social time for friends to chat and catch up on the latest gossip.
In the Roman tradition, two amphitheatres graced the city for gladiator battles and celebrations.
The Amphitheatre (Anfiteatro) on the outskirts thrilled up to 20,000 spectators! Along the sides of the grand entrance are passages from holding areas, and by which the gladiators came onto the battle grounds, and if lucky left victorious to fight another day.
Although the ruins were stumbled upon in 1594 with a canal digging, exploration did not begin until 1748 when some systematic studies were carried out, but the digging was often haphazard, the workers untrained. It was good fortunate that Giuseppe Fiorelli became director of excavations from 1860 to 1875. He introduced methods of excavating the homes that better preserved the vivid frescos, tile floors and household items within.
This ingenious archeologist also discovered that soft cavities in the ash were actually the outlines of bodies that retained their forms despite the soft tissue decomposing over time. When plaster was poured into the ash it filled the spaces formerly occupied by the soft tissue, the bones still intact within the body shape.
A moving scene known as “The Garden of Fugitives” holds 13 plaster moulds of locals seeking refuge; the most victims found in one area in their last horrifying moments. An adult holding a child in their lap is heart-wrenching.
In other areas of the site are glass enclosed displays of pottery, furniture, a wagon and many other items once used in daily life – and also more plaster casts of victims, some having met their demise from collapsing roofs, and others from the waves of scorching gases and hurling pumice and ash.
In recent times, with the use of a 16-layer CT scan designed for people with implants and prosthetics, the bones and teeth within the plaster casts are visible. An interesting finding upon examination was amazingly cavity free teeth; thought to be due to a high fibre, protein and fruit diet (processed sugar not yet being invented), plus high levels of a form of fluoride in the ground and in their water. Also bone lengths show these ancient citizens of Naples were taller in stature than the locals today, and although they also revealed childhood diseases, many lived to old age.
As we walk about the ruins I think of the chronology of the eruption based on the the eyewitness account described in letters by a fellow named Piny the Younger, and the added details brought out from 20th century excavation and volcanologist studies. As of mid-day on August 24th a massive boom had locals looking up at a dark cloud of volcanic matter shooting some 14km above the Vesuvius crater. Between 3 and 5 pm the plume is 25km high and burning pumice and ash rain down covering the city to a depth of 3metres, collapsing timbre roofs. From midnight until into the early morning of August 25th as well as the continual pummel of stone and ash, surges of scorching poisonous gases reached the city asphyxiating those residents who had not been killed by falling debris. Pompeii remained buried 6 to 7 metres deep for the next 17 centuries, thus protecting it from vandalism, looting and the effects of climate and weather.
We leave this marvellously intriguing site with gratitude for the archeologists who laboured to release Pompeii from its silent tomb so we and so many others can so vividly step back in time and feel the vibes of this ancient city. A most worthy bucket list experience indeed!