In 79 A.D., Pliny the Elder was working on his 37-volume Natural History, which covered all areas of ancient knowledge, but unfortunately did not include geology. That is why the frequent earth tremors felt around the region of Campania in Italy “were not particularly alarming”. Even the most learned natural scientist of Rome had not connected seismic activity with volcanic eruptions. Pliny was commanding the imperial fleet of Rome on the Bay of Naples when Vesuvius erupted and himself perished while trying to rescue others in the nearby town of Stabiae.
The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were closer to Mount Vesuvius, bore the brunt of the volcano’s fury. The first eruption pitched millions of tons of rock and ash about 13 km high; a type of discharge named after Pliny the Younger, from where have a first-hand account of the disaster. “You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men…there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying…still more imagined there were no gods left”.
The Plinian Eruption
Lava did not erupt from Vesuvius in 79 A.D.; ash and pumice did all the damage. A lava eruption does not make temperatures lethally hot and depending on its viscosity, magma can be outrun or even out-walked. The Plinian mushroom crashed down on the cities, after which came the pyroclastic surges. The surges inundated the citizens under a scorching blanket of ash and puma. The third and last current of hot gases and rocks hit the people at speeds of over 240 km/hour (150 miles/hour). It brought with temperatures of more than 300o C (570o F). It was enough to kill the entire population in a fraction of a second.
Most people were rigor mortised in the positions they were in, some of them lying, some half-upright. Dr. Peter Baxter of Cambridge University describes the effect of thermal shock: “The direct heat of the surge would be combined with the radiant heat of the ash particles in the cloud to cause rapid fourth degree burns, i.e., burns extending below the skin layer and into the muscles/deep tissues, with rapid overheating of the blood returning to the heart causing cardiac arrest and/or the brain causing respiratory arrest.”
The fatal debris amazingly preserved major parts of the cities, including the bodies, partly-demolished buildings, furniture, crockery, art work, even remnants of food. However, the petrified cities were gradually forgotten and remained lost for more than a millennium. Villages and later cities grew up over the mounds. Pompeii was a city of legendary riches and valuable art works; robbers and grave diggers conducted their own excavations for centuries.
In 1599, workers digging underground channels to divert the flow of the Sarno River uncovered a site that revealed walls with frescoes, paintings and some Latin inscriptions. In the early 1700s, a peasant uncovered a yellow marble used in the wealthy houses of ancient Rome while digging a well for his house. He had discovered Herculaneum. Prince D’Elboeuf of the reigning dynasty heard about the find, bought the peasant’s land. Systematic excavations revealed entire mansions and palaces as well as skeletal remains of people at the sea shore. Though richer in artifacts, Herculaneum, now called Ercolanum, is not as famous as Pompeii, which lies relatively shallow.
Successive monarchs continued the excavations to unearth treasure and to establish their kingdoms as artistic and cultural centres. Discoveries of entire palaces, notable art works and historical pieces created great excitement throughout Europe. Ancient Rome could be quite licentious, and when Charles de Bourbon, ruler of “Kingdom of the two Sicilies” uncovered a statue of two figures in a lascivious embrace and other erotic pieces like phallic chimes, it created a scandal. Excavations were put on hold and the offending exhibits were sealed up into what has evolved into the modern “Secret Museum”.
A Cultural Centre
When Victor Emmanuel II became the first king of the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1860, he appointed Giuseppe Fiorelli to supervise the digs scientifically. In 1777, the skeletal remains of a young woman had been discovered, which had left a cavity in the debris in her exact shape, including facial expressions. Fiorelli’s team excavated many hollows containing skeletons of men, women, children; even animals. He devised a technique of preservation that stunned the world. Fiorelli had his workers pour molten plastic into the hollows. They were left to harden for a few days and the outer layers of ash were chipped away carefully. They had created plaster casts of bodies with contours of the clothes, jewellery and hair clearly captured.
Today, the experts handling and studying these remains conduct their operations with the consciousness of the great tragedy that occurred more than two thousand years ago. As Stefania Giudice, the conservative at the National Archeological Museum at Naples, said, “It can be very moving handling these remains when we apply the plaster. Even though it happened 2,000 years ago, it could be a boy, a mother or a family. It’s human archaeology, not just archaeology.”
The rediscovery of Pompeii’s art works helped spread neoclassicism in Europe. Pompeii became a must-stop on the Grand Tour of Europe. The modern discipline of archaeology owes much to the excavation techniques used at Pompeii over two and a half centuries. Still, nearly one-third of the city still lies buried as the emphasis is now on conservation rather than recovery. The sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum have also provided documents that tell us a lot about Roman times. The two of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy have been protected under the aegis of UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1997.