Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Boston: the last days of Pompeii

Boston: the last days of Pompeii | Concord Monitor

Museum of Science exhibit depicts a town preserved - and destroyed - by volcanic eruption

December 22, 2011

The dead live again in the Boston Museum of Science's "A Day in Pompeii," an exhibit that brings back both the destroyed Italian city and its residents.

Disaster struck towns surrounding Mount Vesuvius in Italy on Aug. 24, A.D. 79. Roman citizens living there likely didn't know that the mountain looming above their homes was a volcano. They also didn't know that the earthquakes leading up to that day were an indication that an eruption would follow.

When it erupted, Mount Vesuvius sealed everything and everyone in its path beneath 70 feet of lava.

Pompeii, the most famous of the destroyed cities, has been discovered and rediscovered since the 1700s. Not only does it offer unique and extraordinary insights into the people and culture of that time, but it offers a chance to see the residents themselves.

Plaster body casts of the city's residents were created by Giuseppe Fiorelli, an Italian archeologist of the 1800s, who poured plaster into cavities found within the lava. As these casts reveal, bodies of people and animals in the city left imprints in the lava. Details of these people and these animals - their clothing, their limbs, elements of their faces - are preserved in their last moments of life. Currently, there are more than 1,000 of these casts.

Chance of a lifetime

For those not able to travel to Italy, the Museum of Science in Boston offers the chance of a lifetime: the ability to see actual artifacts and replicas of body casts from Pompeii itself.

"A Day in Pompeii" is the collaboration of four science centers throughout the United States, the Italian archeological group in charge of preserving Pompeii, and a science center in Melbourne, Australia. The exhibit combines artifacts chosen specifically to highlight daily life in ancient Pompeii with brief films and the option for an audio tour.

The traveling exhibit will remain in Boston through February. It premiered in New York, traveled to Boston, and will continue to Cincinnati and then Denver.

While the artifacts and general content remain the same at each stop, the various science centers have the freedom to design their own presentations.

As Paul Fontaine, vice president of education for the Boston Museum, said, "Designing (the exhibit) was part of the fun." He described it as a "storyline."

Boston's exhibit begins with an enormous botanical fresco behind a statue of Venus. By its very placement within the exhibit, one cannot help but feel that it was designed to welcome visitors, as they might have been welcomed into someone's home almost 2,000 years ago.

There is a marked organization to Boston's presentation: one that walks visitors through a home in Pompeii, through business and life outside of the home, and finally through examples of how they remembered their dead. The storyline within Boston's exhibit celebrates the beauty and life that was enjoyed in that city, rather than the destruction that brought it to an end.

Smaller artifacts are displayed behind glass in raised cases, and on these cases are numbers for the device used on the audio tour. This device enables you to enter any number anywhere in the exhibit to hear more about that particular set of artifacts.

A brief film takes us through a computer-generated home and part of the city as it may have appeared in A.D. 79.

One of the surprising details it offers is that laundry was dropped off at the ancient equivalent of dry-cleaners. Perhaps more surprising are the communal efforts used to whiten clothing.

The film explains that jars were left throughout the city, into which anyone (presumably men) could urinate. These jars were collected at the laundry, and the ammonia from the urine was used to whiten clothing.

Asked how anyone could determine this, Fontaine said that archeology is "part puzzle." (next page »)