We recently arrived back from Italy, and a little part of Italy seemed to travel back to Canada with us! Just a couple of weeks ago, Justin and I were exploring the ancient city of Pompeii. We strolled up and down the uneven cobblestone roads of the town, meandering through each building and structure. At every turn, we were making new discoveries. We were amazed by the detailed painted frescos and the intricate mosaics; we were completely humbled by the plaster casts of human remains. On one hand, this was one of history’s greatest natural disasters that completely destroyed a town and killed many people. Conversely, without the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, we wouldn’t have this perfectly preserved city to study and learn about daily life in an ancient society. While visiting Pompeii in Italy was spectacular (I’ll be writing about it soon!), being able to view priceless artifacts from Pompeii in my own backyard was a very rare opportunity. Many objects that appeared at the Pompeii exhibition at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) are typically kept safely at museums in Italy; you would have to go to Naples and away from the actual site of Pompeii to see them.
I attended a special media day opening of the exhibit, Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano at the ROM. Arriving at the museum, I was greeted by two Roman gladiators (from Great Lake Re-enactors). It certainly put me right into the spirit of the event, and I had flashbacks of seeing many men in gladiator costumes walking near the tourist sites in Rome.
Allow me to introduce you to several fascinating objects, stories, and explanations from the exhibition. Of course, I won’t go into detail about all of the artifacts – you’ll just have to attend the exhibit to see everything for yourself!
Upon entering the exhibition, I immediately noticed a huge video screen that took up an entire wall with an introduction to the story of ancient Pompeii. It all happened 1,936 years ago. In 79AD, Mount Vesuvius, a seemingly dormant volcano erupted with such tremendous force that it completely wiped out nearby cities, including the town of Pompeii. Pompeii was completely buried by falling debris and violent, gaseous blasts. It wasn’t until 1748 that it was accidentally rediscovered and we’ve been uncovering it ever since. One third of the site of ancient Pompeii has yet to be excavated.
The entrance of the exhibit displays three items that provide a starting point to the story of Pompeii. The first is pictured above: a specimen of pumice, a typical product of a stratovolcano (Mount Vesuvius is a stratovolcano) that predates the eruption of 1944. Yes, the last time that Mount Vesuvius erupted was in 1944, and it has erupted more than 50 times throughout history. Visitors are encouraged to touch the pumice to get a hands-on feel for it.
The second artifact in the entrance to the exhibit was quite startling to say the least.
This was a guard dog that was still chained to its post when the Mount Vesuvius erupted. The dog was still wearing its bronze studded collar and was found at the entrance of the House of Orpheus. The cast of this dog was created by pouring plaster into the cavity remaining in the ash after the dog’s body decayed. Animals are able to sense natural disasters intuitively much quicker than humans. This dog likely was distressed due to the impending volcano eruption, but was tied to its post and unable to escape.
The third item showed that previous personal objects were found at the site of Pompeii.
This necklace belonged to an unknown lady and was preserved completely in the ash. Numerous prized possessions, including fancy jewelry, were found buried and perfectly protected.
A Brief History of Mount Vesuvius
For centuries before the Roman period, Mount Vesuvius was a dormant volcano that no one suspected would erupt. The fertile soil of the region attracted people to the area and many settled in the surrounding towns. In Year 79, Mount Vesuvius sent ash, gas, and debris shooting over 20 kilometres into the sky. Pompeii was completely smothered by an immense cloud of ash in forceful pyroclastic surges. The scientists who study volcanoes (Volcanologists) have named this type of eruption as Vesuvian or Plinian. The term Plinian is in reference to the Roman author, Pliny the Younger, who famously described the eruption of Mount Vesuvius as he watched from afar. When I arrived to this media event, we were treated to several short speeches by those who were involved in organizing this exhibition. An excerpt of Letters of Pliny was read aloud (English translation by Romina Di Gasbarro):
and then the smell of sulfur
tells you that the fire comes
and slowly, your breath begins to lose life
over a layed out cloth
a sip of moon lumbers
it falls asleep forever caressing the water
Cloud of white, cloud of dirt
Cloud of earth that does not knock first
Cloud of rock, cloud of fire
Cloud of ash, crooked ire.
I can’t imagine what the people of Pompeii must have felt at the time of the eruption.
Mount Vesuvius is a stratovolcano, meaning that there is very little flowing lava. The magma is thick and traps the gases that build up inside the volcano. The pressure of the gas causes very sudden explosions, shooting a column of rock and ash high into the sky. The ash, gas, and debris plummets back down to earth quickly. This is known as a pyroclastic surge.
Glimpses into Life in Ancient Pompeii
Bronze Portrait of Drusus the Elder
This is a portrait of Drusus the Elder that was recovered at Pompeii. He was a stepson of the first emperor, Augustus, and brother of the future emperor, Tiberius. In this portrait, his face and hairstyle mimic the appearance of Augustus, even though the two were not related by blood. This was done deliberately to establish family relations and legitimize his power.
Marble Portrait of a Woman
This unknown woman resembles Empress Livia, the wife of Augustus. This marble portrait is dated to 50-68 AD as the hairstyle was popular during this time, as was the bead-and-reel diadem on her head. The Empress Livia had a lasting effect on society, as she passed away in Year 29 and her features were still mimicked in the portraits of women.
An Ancient “Mona Lisa”
This is a detailed mosaic created from tiny pieces of limestone. It shows a very prestigious woman who is adorned with expensive jewelry and fancy clothing. Not much is known about this citizen of Pompeii, other than the fact that she was quite wealthy and high class. Check out the mosaic in closer detail:
Bread as an Important Food in Pompeii
The importance of bread is demonstrated in a wall painting found at Pompeii. Typically, a loaf of bread was round and divided into eight segments. There were about 30 bakeries in Pompeii to satisfy the demand of its approximately 12,000 citizens. Not only was a wall painting discovered in the ash of Pompeii, but an actual loaf of bread was preserved there, too! This is a half loaf of bread completely carbonized.
Gladiators in Pompeii
Gladiator gear was found at the site of ancient Pompeii. There was a giant stadium built in Pompeii with seating to accommodate double the population of the town! Needless to say, the citizens of Pompeii were deeply interested in watching gladiator matches at their local stadium. There is a bronze helmet on display, which was worn by a heavily armoured “Murmillo” gladiator. The bronze greaves (leg guards) were worn by a “Thraex” gladiator, and they protected most of his thigh and lower leg. You’ll also see a bronze galerus (a tall guard) to be worn on the left shoulder.
Pompeians loved music, the arts, and theatre. In fact, there were two theatres in Pompeii built one right next to the other before Rome even had just one that was permanent. The Large Theatre sat 5000 people and the Covered Theatre sat almost 2000.
Terracotta Statues of Actors
Both actors here are male, even though one is dressed as a female. The terracotta statues have dramatic masks on their faces for extra emphasis. Originally, they were brightly painted and were found together at the entrance to a private garden near the theatres.
Fragmentary Fresco of Musicians
Pompeians adored music and performed it with nearly every social event. Music was a part of public events, after-dinner entertainment, the theatre, and even played during sacrifices. Musicians played instruments such as woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion. This fragmentary fresco shows musicians playing tibiae (double pipes) and a tambourine as part of a theatrical performance.
Bronze Tibia (Pipe)
This instrument is similar to a modern oboe as it would have been played through a mouthpiece with a double reed.
A Warning Before the Eruption
On February 5th, 62AD, a powerful earthquake shook the town of Pompeii. Typically, volcanic eruptions are preceded by earthquakes, though the citizens of Pompeii didn’t have that knowledge. This marble sculpture shows the earthquake at the Temple of Jupiter as two equestrian statues tilt, and animals sense the natural disaster. This image shows the sculpture from three different angles:
Mosaics of Pompeii
At the actual ancient city of Pompeii, we saw many painted wall frescoes and tiled mosaics adorning the walls and floors. There were several on display at the exhibition. Several mosaics of guard dogs were found at the entrances of houses with canines. Some of these mosaics are accompanied with the words, “Cave Canem” (Beware of the Dog). Another interesting floor mosaic that I quite liked at the exhibition showed many different types of fish and sea life, which was found at the House of Geometric Mosaics.
Frescoes and Wall Paintings
The oldest wall painting in the exhibition was over 100 years old by the time Mount Vesuvius erupted. Only a fragment showing a bird remains. Another unique wall painting found at Pompeii is actually a ceiling tile. Most of the ceilings were destroyed in the eruption by the falling debris and pumice. Thankfully, this one with a very interesting design survived: painted on the tile is the head of Medusa.
Bowl of Olives
Olives are one of the staple food products in Italy. These olives are perfectly preserved by the falling ash that smothered the city. It is very rare to have organic matter survive this length of time!
Bronze Statue from Herculaneum
Very few ancient bronze statues still survive today. Most of them were melted down and sold, but a few were preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This one is from a group of five bronze female statues found at Herculaneum. This woman is fastening her Greek-style dress (peplos). The statues are thought to represent dancers, women carrying religious items, women from a myth, or even the daughters who lived at the home.
The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius
An entire wall at the exhibit is devoted to explaining the timeline at Pompeii following the initial eruption. During the first signs of danger, many people fled and escaped. Some people escaped by boat out to sea, and others fled to the surrounding countryside (where they may have later perished due to their close proximity to Mount Vesuvius). Some citizens hid indoors and tried to escape the next morning. At this time, the extreme heat of the pyroclastic surge instantly killed and buried anyone who remained. I took three pictures of this giant timeline on the wall so you can read the details. It describes the times when people could have attempted an escape, and demonstrates the moment when that became impossible.
Unlike the body casts at the site of Pompeii, the plaster casts on display at the exhibition do not contain any human remains. Some of these have been reconstructed from the originals using 3D printing technology. When the ancient city of Pompeii was discovered and excavated, human remains were discovered. Out of the 12,000 people that lived there, over 1500 bodies have been found (with 1/3 of the city still unexcavated). When ash fell from the sky, it affixed to the skin and clothing of the victims and hardened to form a shell around the corpse. The human remains decayed and left behind a cavity. When the bodies were found, plaster was poured into the cavity to preserve the shape of the remains. This practice is no longer performed as it destroys the human remains. Some of the body casts are in lifelike poses, while others have their arms raised (the heat caused the person’s muscles to contract after his or her death).
Even though these body casts aren’t the original ones like those that I saw in Pompeii, the impact is the same. It is fairly shocking to see the human form preserved in plaster after the person succumbed to death in such a violent manner. Even though we have much more knowledge and sophisticated technologies today, we are still ultimately vulnerable to our natural environment.
Visiting the Exhibition
You should definitely visit Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano! The party starts on Friday, June 12th at 10:00pm during a special installment of ROM Friday Night. First, the actual building of the ROM will have images of Mount Vesuvius projected onto its walls, which will explode with a stunning multimedia show when the exhibition officially opens to the public. You can wear a toga to the event, listen to live music and performances, enjoy food and drink, participate in activities, and view the exhibit.
Exhibition hours are the same as general ROM hours, and there are timed tickets available at 30 minute intervals. Admission for adults is $28, students and seniors have a reduced rate of $25.50, children 4-14 years pay $20, and children 3 and under are free.
Follow along on social media! Follow the hashtag #ROMpeii for the latest exciting news and information regarding the exhibition!
Royal Ontario Museum
100 Queen’s Park
Hours: available at the ROM website
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Have you ever visited Pompeii or seen any artifacts from Pompeii in person?