Pompeii : The Destruction and Re-Discovery of a Roman City

by Chloe Bamberick

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Pompeii is situated in southern Italy.

Pompeii is a partially buried city in southern Italy. “It was left in ruins after a chaotic eruption occurred, leaving the city hidden until 1599.”The city is unquestionably one of the world’s best known archaeological sites, famous not only because of its dramatic destruction as a result of an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, but also its amazing preservation.

The destruction of the city was very dramatic on “24th August, 79AD”. The ancient citizens of Pompeii did not realise the signs of the impending eruption of Vesuvius. Therefore when the volcano went off at around 1pm, it is certain that it caught the local population completely unprepared. What was very strange about this is that there were prior indications that Vesuvius was beginning to stir – there were earthquakes, ground raising up, and underground springs had been drying up. The animals around Mount Vesuvius had begun acting strange. At the same time the citizens of the city didn’t realise that Mount Vesuvius was the cause of the 59AD earthquake, and would soon also cause the destruction of their city.

Not long after midday on the 24th of august, day turned to night for the city. The top of the mountain blew up and exploded. A huge mushroom-like cloud filled up to twenty kilometres of the air in height. The cloud was filled with pumice, ash and gas. The strong wind blew these particles in a north-westerly direction. Unfortunately the city of Pompeii lay in that direction. Usually the wind would blow in a south-west direction, which would have blown out the column over the Bay of Naples. Though on that terrible day, the wind happened to blow in a north-westerly direction, right over the city of Pompeii. If the eruption of Mount Vesuvius had occurred on any other day, the citizens of Pompeii may have stood a better chance of escape and survival. Unfortunately that was not the case, and the city was destroyed.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius was tremendous

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius was tremendous

According to a first-hand account, Pliny the younger; “You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting. There were some so afraid of death that they prayed for death. Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was one unending night for the world.” Some people waited it out. Some people tried to escape but the majority were too late. There were very few survivors, like Pliny the younger.

Pliny the younger; first-hand account and survivor of the Pompeii disaster

Pliny the younger; first-hand account and survivor of the Pompeii disaster

Recent investigations have looked at the cause of death for the victims. Using Scientific study of bone fractures and the position of the remains of people, anthropologist Paolo Petrone and volcanologist Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo discovered that without a doubt, the fugitives had been wrapped in a 900-degree Fahrenheit cloud. They died, not from slow suffocation as scientists had long thought, but from instant thermal shock.

 

The effect of this eruption was totally traumatic, as is shown by the lack of ability to reoccupy the sites of this city that had been destroyed. It was normal practice to rebuild the cities of this region after even the most massive earthquakes; but the cities of Hereculum and Pompeii were not re-occupied. The site had instead been riddled with tunnels dug by explorers. Not by modern explorers which would be expected, but by the roman explorers themselves after the eruption. The cities buildings were riddled with holes, room after room, and even though Pompeii has had richer discoveries than any other Roman site recorded, it was a city already extensively sacked by looters.

The cities on the north of the Bay of Naples quickly recovered. Puteoli continued on to be an important commercial centre. The Bay continued to attract wealthy holidaymakers, but never again earned the huge levels of popularity it once had from two centuries before the disaster, when it had been a playground of many wealthy emperors and senators.

Plaster cast of a victim killed by the Mount Vesuvius eruption

Plaster cast of a victim killed by the Mount Vesuvius eruption

 

Ruins Of Pompeii

Ruins Of Pompeii

This dramatic destruction of Pompeii had stayed in people’s minds for many years, but eventually was forgotten.  Pompeii’s destruction soon became a myth, apart from maybe folk’s tales, only existing as a name for this area, La Cività. It was also known as the lost city, and was not to be discovered for another 1520 years.

“Pompeii was first rediscovered in 1599” by Domenico Fontana.  He was digging up a new course for the river Sarno.  He had dug a channel underground when he discovered the city. It is believed he found many things, but he covered the findings over after looking at only a few. Some believe that Fontana had even found some of the famous frescoes which were quite erotic and, because of the strict modesty prevalent there was at his time, he buried them again in “attempt to censor the archaeology”. This outlook was supported by reports of later excavators who believed that sites they were working on had already been visited and then reburied. Many things discovered in homes had a sexual theme.

It took more than 150 years before a campaign was started to have them uncovered. No more investigations in the area were made until the buried Companion towns began in Herculaneum had been excavated. “In 1748, March, the King of Naples, Charles Bourbon, sent a surveying engineer named Rocco Gioacchino de Alcubiere with a mission.” This mission was to bring ancient statues and other treasures to the Spanish Court, and also to build a summer palace for the king, by doing internal renovations. He looked closely at the water channel that Fontana had dug and discovered that “at this place called La Cività, antiques had been found.” He began digging here and to his amazement discovered the buried city. Although Fontana may have found the Pompeii, it was in fact Rocco Gioacchino de Alcubiere who began the first excavation on the city.

The excavations at Pompeii have continued ever since. The excavations of these towns showed many buildings which were intact and wall paintings. For over 200 years now, we have been able to revisit the same moment in the history of Pompeii, the moment it became a fossil as an archaeological site. For many years, visitors have wandered through its alleys and strolled through its buildings, but have always been tourists stuck in A.D. 79. Excavations done after the destruction has allowed us to ‘go back in time.’ We got to look at the insulas from that late August day in 79AD and back through the ages to the fourth century B.C. Maybe even earlier.

An excavation site at Pompeii.

An excavation site at Pompeii.

The archaeologists that are working in Pompeii are part of a long history of digging. Some parts of ancient Pompeii were buried, protected, and “preserved for almost 17 centuries and then had been cleared.” In the first rush for Pompeian treasured, A Pompeian insula discovered named VI,1 had been cleared, but it was not recorded. We have only a few work-plans and notes, while the insulas contents were examined thoroughly. Pompeii was opened up to visitors who were wealthy and educated from the late eighteenth century. VI,1 was the first stop along the grand tour. Many artists and scholars went to the city. Their journals documented the magnificence of the insula soon after their exhumation.

 

“Pompeii was laid under approximately 20 feet of ash and stone until it was discovered.” Since then, it has never been away from the attention of the public. Historians continue to try and separate myth and reality of how the Pompeiians lived in the years before the volcanic eruption. Still continuing the excavations, only a small percentage of Pompeii is still buried- 30%. These excavations have provided many discoveries. Many buildings such as the baths, homes, the Forum and some out-of-town villas are still preserved well. “Around 400 discoveries recorded by 25 worldwide research groups in the past 10 years have produced a very accurate picture of life in Pompeii in 59AD.”

At the time Mount Vesuvius erupted, this was a wealthy Roman trading town, famous for its grand villas, and fish sauce. It was international and cosmopolitan. As well as Etruscans and Greeks, the population included inhabitants from Africa. Of Pompeii’s 20,000 residents, half were children. “The average Pompeian woman was 4 1/2 feet tall and lived to the age of 39”. The average man was a few inches taller and could expect to live to the age of 41.

The excavations suggest that “pompeiians poured their savings into their houses.” Wealthy people enriched their homes with elegant courtyard gardens decorated with frescoes of plants and flowers and an abundance of modern conveniences. Each room was heated by hot air running through cavity walls and spaces under the floors, while sophisticated hydraulic pumps provided running water. The entire city had an excellent system for the control and distribution of water. From a great reservoir, water flowed invisibly through underground pipelines into drainage systems and into aqueducts supported by arches. It reappeared in the city’s houses, public buildings and fountains.

An Upper class Pompeii which was preserved.

An Upper class Pompeii which was preserved.

“To help assemble this strikingly detailed re-creation of life in Pompeii, researchers employed a range of high-tech tools.” Among them were DNA testing of bones to decipher genetic history and physical analysis of the bones to study the physical structure of Pompeiians and to determine some of the most prevalent diseases, such as arthritis. With powerful microscopes, pollens observed by scientists, animal bones and pieces of wood, glass, plants and daily objects to find out about the natural history of the area as well  .Using 3-D techniques, “they reconstructed the faces of four Pompeiians bringing the ancient people back to life hundreds of years later.”

Excavations continue on today in search of antiques and sources that will give us more insight on Roman life in Pompeii. The rediscovery of Pompeii is an important part of history. This is mainly because the excavations of Pompeii give us much insight on the life of people in Ancient Rome each day.

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