Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum – British Museum

The other week I visited the British Museum to see the long-awaited exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. I’d booked in advance to visit after work on a Friday afternoon, and a good thing too, as it was completely sold out.

It’s unsurprising that the exhibition is so popular, as the destruction of the city of Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 is legendary. Less well-known, perhaps, is the similar destruction of the nearby city of Herculaneum at the same time. The exhibition explores the lives of people living in these two cities, and also their deaths.

Entering the exhibition, a handful of artefacts – a stool and a painting, preserved by the eruption – are displayed, retrieved from the wreckage of the cities. Alongside these sits a cast of a dog, one of the most famous items from the area, forever fixed at the moment of its death.

Following this introductory scene, there is a short video looking at the lives of those individuals who lived in the cities. This consists of videos of modern inhabitants of the Bay of Naples, many of whom live lives not dissimilar to their forebears. The exhibition takes pains to emphasise the similarities between us and the citizens of AD 79 Pompeii and Herculaneum, while not discounting the many differences.

The ‘life’ aspect of the exhibition was the biggest, and I liked the way it was laid out – like a house, with rooms such as the bedroom, kitchen and atrium. It began with a street scene: the objects displayed here had been taken from the streets and public areas in which they were originally placed.  These included signs, shop fronts, and tavern murals. The latter were among my favourites in the exhibition. They were humorous pictures of ordinary people engaging in normal tavern-based activities, such as drinking, gambling and a little romance. Latin inscriptions narrated the tales, helpfully translated in captions underneath. One particularly amusing scene showed two men arguing over the game they were playing, with one calling the other ‘c*cksucker’.

Continuing in that vein, I was surprised to discover that several ornaments and fixtures used by the citizens were decorated with penises (peni??). They were not the rude, slightly indecent symbols they are today: rather, they were lighthearted cultural symbols representing fecundity and fertility. These decorations suggest that however similar these people were to us, they were very different in several other ways. Another stark reminder of this was a statue, displayed in a corner of the ‘garden’ area, with a sign to warn parents of small children that they might want to keep them away. This statue showed the god Pan enjoying, shall we say, an ‘intimate’ moment with a goat, and presented the prudish archaeologists of yesteryear who discovered it with a quandary – was this really the sort of thing that the literate, civilised, cultured Romans were into?

Other artefacts, presented in the exhibition rooms corresponding to those which they would have belonged in Italy, were more mundane: decorative tiles, a small stool, a bed, jewellery, shells containing makeup that still bore traces of cosmetics. And yet, the mundane nature of these objects make the highly unusual and sudden death of their owners all the more shocking and tragic. One particular item I found the saddest of all: a wooden cradle. Empty on display, it had been found with its tiny occupant still inside.

The exhibition illustrates how the different conditions in Pompeii and Herculaneum have allowed archaeologists and scientists to build up a fuller picture of life at the time. The larger industrial city of Pompeii was engulfed by a pyroclastic cloud, killing its inhabitants and burying the city under a massive layer of ash. This allowed the shape of the bodies to be preserved once they rotted away, as they left behind their shape inside the ash. In the smaller seaside town of Herculaneum, the pyroclastic cloud was even hotter, reducing bodies to nothing and turning wooden artefacts to charcoal.

The people of Pompeii and Herculaneum were getting on with their lives, going about their day to day business, when they were overtaken by tragedy. Towards the end of the exhibition there are displays of meals, prepared but never eaten, which illustrate just how sudden the eruption was. Finally, we see some of the individuals discovered by archaeologists when the sites were first explored. One lady was cast in resin, more durable than the traditional plaster of Paris; she had been found lying down, accompanied by jewellery. Four family casts are displayed together, frozen at the moment of death. One child throws its head back against a wall. The other cuddles close to its parents. It is truly heartbreaking to see these casts, and imagine the pain and fear that these people must have felt all those years ago.

This is truly a fantastic exhibition – not that I would have expected anything less from the British Museum. Booking in advance is essential, unless you want to take the risk of turning up early in the hope of day tickets. The exhibition runs until the 29th of September and I certainly recommend it.