FACE TO FACE WITH OUR MORTALITY – THE GHOSTS OF POMPEII
At noon on August 24, 79 AD, the day after the Roman holiday of Volcanalia, which was appropriately dedicated to the god of fire, the Mount Vesuvius volcano on the Bay of Naples in Italy erupted violently, spewing clouds of ash and noxious gases into the air for the next eighteen hours and sending rivers of lava streaming down its slopes. The ash rained down upon the surrounding countryside and covered everything, including the nearby cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The next morning the cone of the volcano collapsed and a river of ash and mud engulfed the two cities, burying them. There they remained, forgotten until they were found quite by accident when in 1738 construction began on Charles of Bourbon’s palace. Amazingly the cities were well preserved due to the rapidity of the catastrophe.
Those who were unable to flee met a horrible fate as they were covered in ash and choked on the noxious fumes. Buried for some 1700 years under about 9 meters (30 feet) of mud and ash, their bodies were slowly reduced to skeletons. When excavations began in the early 1800’s the victims of the eruption began to be uncovered. As more and more human remains were discovered the excavators noticed that the skeletons were lying in hollow spaces of compacted ash. It didn’t take much imagination to see that these were like molds and when plaster was carefully poured into them the results were that images of the bodies were cast, down to the details of their clothes, hair and faces. The final agonizing moments of their deaths had been faithfully preserved. It is estimated that some 2000 of the 20,000 residents of Pompeii perished on that day. So far about 1150 bodies have been recovered. The casts that one sees on display today of Pompeii’s men, women, children and animals were all made around the mid 1800’s. Casts are no longer being made today because the process destroys the skeletal remains, which can provide much more information than just the casts, despite their amazing eerie detail. Those who perished on that fateful August day could not, in their wildest imaginations, have foreseen how their mortality, the last moments of their lives would serve to tell their stories almost 2000 years later…
Photo taken of a plaster cast of one of Pompeii’s citizens during a visit to the site in 1996.
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