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March 29, 2013

Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum

by Val Reynolds
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Herculaneum, Bay of Naples, Italy, 2012 Copyright Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum

It’s a well known fact that these two Roman towns were buried under mountains of ash, lava and rubble from Versuvius, with the horrifying result of wiping out both populations, grim indeed.  However, the latest exhibition at The British Museum, though set in the context of the disaster, is focussed on people’s everyday lives and their possessions. The things people commissioned, talked about, bought, loved, were proud of, sometimes broke, sometimes threw away, nevertheless things owned by real people.  It’s a new take and a welcome one, as the unusual circumstances of Mount Vesuvius’s eruption leave a unique opportunity of glimpsing the civilisation that was the Roman Empire.  And although Herculaneum is often seen as the smaller sister of Pompeii, it’s given almost equal billing here.

The exhibition revolves around the home, its interior, its gardens, its kitchen and also the streets and shops.  The artefacts are clearly explained with Latin inscriptions helpfully translated.  One fresco that particularly strikes a modern chord is of drinkers gearing up for a brawl;  indeed, you felt yourself thinking on many occasions, that life hasn’t really changed that much since AD79!

The pyroclastic flow that hit Herculaneum was so much hotter than the ash and rocks. People were instantly knocked to the ground, their bones broken, their bodies burned to the bone. Items were crisped and carbonised, so amazingly we’re able for instance to see a loaf of bread from Herculaneum, and even the stamp of the baker on a loaf of bread.  His  name, Celer, means speedy. Speedy was obviously proud of his ability to turn out loaves of bread. The child’s wooden cradle that still rocks serves as a poignant example of everyday life.

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Wall painting of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife. From the House of Terentius Neo, Pompeii. AD 50 to 79. Copyright Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum

From the artefacts it’s clear that many slaves became freed men and women and integrated more fully into everyday life in both towns.  Also highlighted is the important role of women which throws into the air our ideas that they were generally considered to be second class citizens.  One of the most beautiful and telling exhibits is a beautiful fresco, showing a man, and his wife, standing side by side, he holding a scroll, she a wax tablet, on which she kept domestic and business accounts; so who was wearing the toga in that household?  Women may not have been able to vote or be elected to public life but they seem to have had equal say in everyday life.

You are encouraged to enter the lovely home and garden with its wonderful frescos of birds and flowers, to make yourselves at home and  view the wonderful items of Roman life  many of which have never been seen in public before.  And as you enter the final rooms of the exhibition, you can also see a few of the famous casts of bodies from Pompeii, a reminder of the tragedy that struck but still telling you that these are real people.

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Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st Century AD, Roman, Pompeii. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum

Look out for the dormouse fattening up pot! The gold jewellery  is fascinating, you can buy a replica of a beautiful snake bracelet for £120 in the inevitable shop at the exit.

Jeannette Nelson Arts Critic   A bit of a culture vulture, Jeannette enjoys art exhibitions, cinema and classical music, but her main interest is the theatre. For several years she ran theatre discussion groups for which her MA in Modern Drama together with teaching skills stood her in good stead. She prefers to concentrate on the many off West End and fringe productions as well as that real treasure of the London theatre scene, the National.

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