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Thursday, February 20, 2014

An Explosive Brand

Pompeii is a symbolic disaster of truly epic proportions--the result of Mount Vesuvius catastrophicallyblowing its stack sometime in the autumn of 79 AD. It's said that the eruption took place a day after the festival of the Roman god, Vulcanalia, making for interesting timing. Nevertheless, the event marked the final day of life in ancient Pompeii. The blast obliterated everything in its path and buried Pompeii under ash and pumice, leaving the site lost for well more than a millennium.

For reference, the ruins of Pompeii are located south of Rome itself, between the modern cities of Naples and Salerno. Researchers believe that the town was founded in the seventh or sixth century BC, and was captured a hundred years or so later by the Romans in 80 BC. It ultimately became a gem of the empire--a countryside getaway dotted with summer villas. It was home to a thriving port for commerce, and the streets teamed with art and a culture. By the time of its destruction, the population was probably around 20,000.  Residents enjoyed a
complex water system, a gymnasium and even a gladiator facility. The amphitheater is considered to be a model of sophisticated design, both in terms of aesthetics and functionality. It's bathrooms have actually inspired architects to design better facilities in modern stadiums. Still used for events today, scholars marvel at its design for crowd control. Amazingly, it was built around 70 BC and is the oldest surviving Roman amphitheater in the world.

Pompeii is often depicted as, well, a hotbed of naughty. The culture there was undeniably erotic. Throughout its rediscovery and excavation, observations record the persistent use of the phallus as decoration--some large, some not so much, but there's a lot of them. Scholars believe these decorations were used as good-luck charms to aid in fertility. Excavations have also exposed impressive collections of erotic-themed art and artifacts, including several blush-inducing frescoes.

We know all of this because Vesuvius covered the city in around 75 feet of ash within 6 hours of the start of the eruption. This mummified the entire city, locking it in time. Tiles, cups, urns, and whole buildings were preserved as they were on the day of the eruption. What ever was in the city stayed in the city--including the Pompeians.

It's mistakenly believed that the victims suffocated from the lack of oxygen. The reality is that they died
long before suffocating or being buried. Extreme heat with temperatures rising to nearly 500 degrees Fahrenheit killed everything within 6 miles of the crater. Early excavators often encountered voids in the ash layers. But it wasn't until the 1860s that an Italian archaeologist realized what the voids were. Giuseppe Fiorelli realized they were molds in the solidified ash, left behind from bodies decomposing. He developed a plaster injection technique used to recreate the victims' forms. It is the result of these plaster casts that so symbolize Pompeii in the minds of the public. Haunting and heart-wrenching are images of families, mothers, children, even pets in death throws and despair.