Travelogues

Pompeii: an ancient city buried under volcanic ash

Pompeii was an ancient Roman town which was buried under 4-6 metres of volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Archaeologists have excavated the site and have found the well preserved ruins of a thriving civilization. Visiting Pompeii is like revisiting the past- an amazing experience.

The walls outside the city of Pompeii

On 24 August in 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius (that you see in the background of this picture) erupted. This resulted in the city of Pompeii being buried under metres of volcanic ash and pumice stones. This volcano did not produce lava. This volcanic eruption killed around 3000 people who did not flee the city in time . 

1800 years later, archaeologists managed to uncover the well laid out city which was remarkably preserved below the layers of volcanic ash and lapilli (pumice). It was preserved to such an extent that graffiti on the walls, paintings, electoral propaganda- all can still be seen. 

Of Pompeii’s original 66 hectares, 44 have now been excavated.

These paved roads in the picture are made with basalt. Remember these were made in that era and are still intact! The whole city topography was planned and organized. The north-south roads were called cardinals, while the east-west roads were called decumanus. These intersected at right angles. So you now know where the planned intersections of New York city had its origins!

Look closely at the picture above. What are these three stones doing in the middle of the street? The ancient version of the speed breaker! Note the carriage tracks between the stones. So when you drove standard sized horse carriages the wheels had to go between the tracks and obviously slow down. Also, these roads used to be flooded during rains, so these stepping stones were also useful to cross the roads. The height of the pavement was indeed higher.

And to show what a planned city the Romans built, look at their parking spaces. The holes are where you could tie your horse and park your carriage!

The walk along the wide city roads shows how the city had its shops and buildings arranged in a planned uncluttered manner. You can see single and double story housing too.  

Now read Pliny the Younger’s fascinating description of the volcanic eruption:

‘The ninth day before the calends of September (24th August), in the early afternoon, my mother drew to my uncle’s attention a cloud of unusual size and appearance. Its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed.’

‘My uncle hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone. Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames. For a moment my uncle wondered whether to turn back, but when the helmsman advised this, he refused, and they should make for the home of Pomponianus at Stabiae. The wind was in my uncle’s favour, and he was able to bring his ship in.’

‘After his bath he lay down and dined; he was quite cheerful, or at any rate he pretended he was, which was no less courageous. Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasised by the darkness of night. My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned.’

‘Then he went to rest and certainly slept, for as he was a stout man his breathing was rather loud and heavy and could be heard by people coming and going outside his door.”By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed any longer he would never have got out. My uncle was wakened, came out and joined Pomponianus and the rest of the household, who had stayed up all night.’

‘They debated whether to remain indoors or take their chances in the open. After comparing the risks they chose the latter. As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths. Elsewhere there was daylight, but they were still in darkness.My uncle decided to go down to the shore. There, a sheet was spread on the ground for my uncle to lie down, and he repeatedly called for cold water which he drank.”Then the flames and smell of sulphur which heralded the approaching fire drove the others to take flight. Aroused, my uncle struggled to his feet, leaning on two slaves, but he immediately collapsed. I assume that his breathing was impeded by the dense fumes which blocked his windpipe – for it was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed.”And now came the ashes, but at first sparsely. Behind us (Pliny the Younger and his mother) an ominous thick smoke, spreading over the earth like a flood, followed us. We had scarcely agreed what to do when we were enveloped in night. To be heard were only the shrill cries of women, the wailing of children, the shouting of men. But the darkness lightened, and then like smoke the cloud dissolved away. Everything appeared changed – covered by a thick layer of ashes like an abundant snow fall.’

Walking through Pompeii you feel as if everything was dramatically arrested the day Mount Vesuvius decided to express its anger. Everything signifies normal life. No one anticipated that such a thing would occur. 

The number of casualties could have been worse. However just a few years ago in 62 AD, an earthquake had left large scale damage which led to many people fleeing Pompeii. When Vesuvius erupted, the number of inhabitants were limited.

Let’s now walk into an amphitheatre:

The amphitheatre at Pompeii is the earliest known permanent stone amphitheatre in Italy. It was constructed after 70 BC, and belongs to the period of the Roman conquest and colonisation of the town.

Gladiatorial games were extremely popular. The amphitheatre could seat around 20,000 people, and served not only Pompeii but also the inhabitants of surrounding towns. Note that some of this area has marble seating. Marble came from Tuscany.

The amphitheatre in Pompeii still has perfect acoustics. In 1971, the rock band Pink Floyd recorded the live concert film Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii, performing six songs in the ancient Roman amphitheatre in the city. David Gilmour will perform here in July this year. Interested?

Our well read and witty guide, Vincenzio, explains how the water faucets were intricately carved and also served as addresses to the localities.

Another example of a carved water faucet, of course now fitted with a modern tap, but still functional. 

What was intriguing was that they had pipes to supply running water in that age. Unfortunately these pipes were made of lead. So maybe the reason for the low life expectancy was lead poisoning. Who knows! 

This 2nd century BC house is remarkably preserved.Casa del Poeta Tragico has frescoes on its walls and beautiful mosaic on its floor in its narrow entrance. You can see an airy well lit central courtyard surrounding which were the bedrooms.

Casa del Poeta Tragico

The entrance of the House of the Tragic Poet shows exquisite mosaic designs of a fierce dog. And perhaps the earliest known ‘Beware of Dog’ sign. It says Cave Canem telling trespassers to enter at their own risk.

This building is the Lupanare or the brothel. The name comes from the word lupe which means she-wolves- perhaps referring to the calls of the women to attract business to this place. There are different levels. The ground floor consists of rather cramped ‘cubicles’ with hard beds. The top floor was more luxurious for elite customers.

Pompeii’s forum, which would have been at the political, commercial and social heart of the town. Most of the most important civic buildings at Pompeii – the municipal offices, the basilica (court-house), the principal temples and the macellum (market) – were located in or around the forum. 

This temple was the Capitolium of Pompeii. The temple dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, the three gods who were worshipped in a temple on the Capitol Hill in Rome. Official celebrations took place in this temple. In essence its purpose was not a religious one, but it indicated the link of the town with Rome. 

The Forum was designed in the 2nd century BC. Its columns were built using local dark volcanic stone, but in the 1st century AD, many of them were replaced by white limestone columns.

This is the marketplace where fish and meat were sold. There is archaeological evidence in the form of fish bones.
Frescoes (mural paintings) are painted onto freshly-laid or wet lime plaster: ‘Fresco’ means ‘fresh’. This way, the paint mixes with the plaster and becomes much more durable
Imagine these colours are still fresh 2000 years later!
This was the marketplace where fish, meat and vegetables were sold. Mount Vesuvius looms in the backdrop

Bathing was an important communal activity in the ancient Roman culture. There were separate baths for men and women. There is first a dressing room (known as the apodyterium) which then led to the frigidarium (cold room), tepidarium (lukewarm room), followed by the calidarium (hot room). Women were not allowed in the frigidarium lest it affect their fertility. These were areas were recreational and are the precursors of modern day spas and saunas.

What is amazing are these grooves in the ceiling of the hot room or sauna. this ensured that the condensation of water would not drip down on users but slide down to the sides instead
The Roman baths were engraved with several sculptures. This one shows images of Hercules lifting here the weight of this structure. 

Archaeologists have made hundreds of plaster casts of the volcano’s victims. When the ash poured down over the city, people were killed instantly, in the exact poses they struck when they noticed their impending doom. As their bodies decomposed, they left perfectly-formed hollows in the ash. Historians can inject these hollows with plaster, recreating the positions of the bodies, and sometimes their terrified facial expressions.

This is a plaster cast of a baby
This is the plaster cast of a scared man
This is the plaster cast of a guard dog which was tied. It is twisted back on itself, snapping at its own rump. Perhaps it was trying to escape, when the volcanic eruption killed it.
More artefacts uncovered during the excavations

Hope you enjoyed this pictorial journey through the ruins of Pompeii with me.

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