Contemporary historians* believe that on August 24, 79 (AD), one day after Vulcanalia, the festival of the Roman god of fire, Mt. Vesuvius erupted for 18 hours, burying some of the surrounding cities to the south and killing 2,000 of the 20,000 residents of Pompeii. Just 5 miles away from Mt. Vesuvius, the city of Pompeii vanished under 20 feet of ash, which collapsed roofs and floors but left walls intact. Pompeii remained buried for nearly 1,700 years until 1749, when excavations began. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pompeii is one of the most popular tourist sites in Italy, hosting some 2,500,000 people each year. I believe at least half of those people were there the day we visited Pompeii!
On our way back to Rome from our trip to the Amalfi Coast in mid-October, we stopped to see Pompeii on Sunday afternoon. Although Mt. Vesuvius is still an active volcano, it last erupted in 1944, and it never occurred to me to be afraid to visit Pompeii.
Pompeii was founded around the 6th or 7th century BC and became a thriving commercial port. According to Rick Steves Italy 2011, at the time of the eruption Pompeii had more than 40 bakeries, 30 brothels, and 130 bars, restaurants, and hotels. The excavation of Pompeii offers an unrivaled view of middle-class Roman life nearly 2,000 years ago.
Among the most fascinating discoveries in Pompeii were hollow spaces created when bodies decomposed. Archaeologists filled these holes with plaster (they now use clear resin because it is more durable and doesn’t disturb the bones) and created molds of Pompeiians killed in the disaster. Most of these plaster casts are now housed at the Archeaological Museum of Naples, but a few can still be viewed in Pompeii itself. From their awkward and frantic positions, these people didn’t die comfortably.
According to Wiki, the lack of air and moisture allowed the objects to remain underground for 1,700 years with little to no deterioration. However, once exposed, Pompeii has been subject to both natural and man-made forces that have rapidly increased the rate of deterioration. Weather, erosion, light, water, poor methods of excavation and reconstruction, introduced plants and animals, tourism, vandalism, and theft have damaged the site.
During a trip to Bandon for Mom’s birthday in 2007, my four-year-old nephew, Cade, brought a book about Pompeii. He LOVED that book, and we read it to him so many times that we practically memorized it! So I expected to love Pompeii and was really excited to go. Well, I liked Pompeii, but I didn’t love Pompeii. We took an audio tour of the site and found the descriptions, map, and signage extremely confusing. Everything felt run down and neglected. A friend visited later and splurged on a private tour, which she loved, so perhaps that’s the answer. I’m glad I went, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it again.
*According to Wikipedia, archaeological excavations suggest that Pompeii was buried on November 23. People buried in the ash appear to be wearing warmer clothing than would be expected in August. The fresh fruit and vegetables in the shops are typical of October, and the summer fruit that would have been typical of August was being sold in dried or conserved form. Wine fermenting jars were sealed over, which would have happened around the end of October. Coins found in the purse of a woman buried in the ash include one with a 15th imperatorial acclamation among the emperor’s titles. This cannot have been minted before the second week of September.