Life and Death in Pompeii & Herculaneum (Exhibition at the British Museum)

Back at the end of July J and I visited the British Museum’s current major exhibition – Life and Death in Pompeii & Herculaneum – which is still on till the end of September. We timed our visit for a morning coz it’s been selling out & we figured the least crowded time would be earlier, it was still pretty busy tho.

(No photos, never any photos from temporary exhibitions.)

The exhibition opened with a handful of objects to give an overview of the sorts of things in the exhibition, including a small table and a cast of a dog. Then on to a film about the destruction of Pompeii & Herculaneum by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 – I really liked the style of this, it was mostly graphics illustrating captions (with a voiceover) and the words in the text moved about like the thing they were describing. For instance the bit about the initial pyroclastic surges that were stopped by Pompeii’s walls had a caption that came rushing in from the side before piling up in a heap next to the wall.

The bulk of the exhibition was about what this cataclysmic destruction of the two towns has told us about how the Romans lived. Because most stuff was still there in the towns when they were destroyed (and indeed many people were still in the towns) the archaeologists have a snapshot of the daily lives of the period. The way the two places were destroyed also helped to preserve things that generally don’t last the millennia – I think it’s from Herculaneum that they’ve found wooden furniture for instance. So to best display this way of looking at it (life instead of death) they’ve laid out the central portion of the exhibition following the floor plan of one of the houses in Pompeii. The objects associated with each area of the house are therefore in the right places & it gives you a definite sense of both how similar & how different they were. For instance, there are obviously beds & makeup/haircare accessories are in the bedroom which feels very familiar, but the other accessories & decor are much more overtly sexual than we’d expect. Like lamp holders in the shape of winged phalluses (a good luck symbol, I think as well as the sexual meaning rather than instead of).

So after the video the route through the exhibition turned a corner past a boundary marker – on one side it was this person’s property & on the other side it was someone else’s, the remnant of some dispute between the house owners. Then we were outside the entrance to the house. This particular house they were following the plan of had shops in the front (as many did) – I think not necessarily run by the house owner or his/her slaves, and perhaps not even owned by them. They had some objects from shops in this section, including a couple of bottles of garum sauce. One of which was the “finest” variety of this particular brand’s selection, the other was kosher certified. Which surprised me, but shouldn’t’ve. After all by 79AD the Jews were thoroughly a part of the empire & so obviously there would be kosher groceries for them.

Next into house proper, entering the atrium – a public-ish space, where a Roman would receive his or her clients or visitors, and also do much of the day to day life of the household. In the exhibition they had a faux-pool in the centre (which would’ve been filled with rainwater in the original house), and a variety of fine pieces of painting or statuary around the room. I particularly like the one-legged table with the leg in the shape of a panther, which would be used to display & show off the silverware of the family. Off the atrium space they had a mock-up of a bedroom – just one, even tho there were several off the atrium. These would’ve had no windows, so been totally dependant on light from oil lamps (hung off phalluses in some cases!). In this as well as part of an adult’s bed they had the cradle which was found in Herculaneum – we’ve seen it in a few programmes about Pompeii & Herculaneum, but I don’t think I’d been told before that the remains of the baby were found inside it which is rather sad. Among the jewellery & toilette items on display here there were also two sets of jewellery to compare – one had belonged to an elite woman, the other was clearly mimicing this high class stuff but in bronze & glass instead of gold & jewels.

After this it was through to the garden. Obviously there wasn’t an actual garden in the exhibition, but they had some statuary & so on which had been found in gardens. Again some of this was familiarish & some not so much. The drunken Hercules pissing on the ground reminded me of the “wee boys weeing” fountains you seem to see all the time in garden centres (or did back when my parents were taking me to garden centres & I was trying to find something entertaining about the trip). And off in a little side room they had some of the more eyebrow raising pieces, including a fairly large statue of Pan making love to a goat – when it was found in the 18th Century it was regarded as so shocking it wasn’t displayed to the general public. And even now it was set off from the side of the exhibition with a note so parents could avoid taking their children in if they so wished. As well as statuary they had some graffiti from gardens, apparently the inhabitants saw no problems with scribbling notes to themselves carved into the walls. They also had some frescos from a garden room – one wall of the room would’ve opened onto the garden and the rest of the walls were painted to look like a garden. A blurring of the boundary between the real & the representation. Obviously this would be a very idealised garden – with a selection of flowers with no attempt to make sure they’d be flowering at the same times. And also as part of the fresco were some disembodied heads, painted as sort of suspended from the tops of the walls – I don’t think the labels explained what was going on there, it was a bit odd.

The last couple of rooms of the living part of the exhibition were the kitchen & dining room. In the dining area they also showed how the homes were decorated, with examples of frescos of the various styles. My favourite of the mosaics was in this room too – one of a skeleton carrying wine jugs, they’d labelled it as a reminder that death comes for everyone (and this time he’s bringing the wine) 🙂 The kitchen area included some carbonised remains of actual food, which means quite a bit is known about the diet of the Romans in the towns (well, the food remains and the remains in the sewers of Herculaneum have provided that information). There were also a selection of pots & so on – including a dormouse fattener. This was a clay pot that made me think of an inside-out version of the sort of pot you grow strawberries in – a tallish cylinder & on the inside there were little ledges for the dormice to scamper up & down to get their food & just to run about. The household toilet would also have been in the kitchen, the section of the exhibition about it had an example of a fresco with protective decoration above the toilet. Which was the goddess Isis watching over the defecator to protect him from whatever they worried they might catch from the toilet (presumably food contamination was a frequent occurence). A bit of a let down for a mighty Egyptian goddess, I think 😉

The last part of the exhibition was about the eruption. It included a few of the plaster casts made from the Pompeii dead, as well as some of the associated items from both Pompeii & Herculaneum. There was also one cast that had been made with resin – so the bones of the victim were dimly visible inside (and jewellery had been retrieved from inside the cast, because it could be seen). They’d done a good job with the lighting & layout here to make it a bit more subdued & respectful. Quite a sobering section.

I’d sort of thought we might go back & see the exhibition again, but not sure we’re going to end up having the time – a shame. It’s well worth seeing.

Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time; Howard Goodall’s Story of Music

There’s a British Museum exhibition about Pompeii & Herculaneum that’s recently opened, so there’ve been a few programmes on the BBC recently on the same subject. Last night we watched Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time – which was billed as a “drama documentary” so I was a little concerned (I don’t generally like too much dramatisation in my documentary viewing) but it turned out to be really good. It was presented by Margaret Mountford, and the way this was presented was as if I should know who she was – having looked her up on wikipedia it turns out she’s known for having been on The Apprentice (as a judge not a competitor). She’s not the presenter here as a “personality” – she’s recently got a PhD in Papyrology with a focus on Roman & Bzyantine Egypt, so she’s an expert in a field related to the programme’s subject. And as I was telling J this, he pointed out he’d heard of her coz she’s a trustee of the EES. I guess I probably should’ve heard of her 🙂

(I do tend to look up the presenters of programmes I watch on wikipedia if I don’t recognise them & even sometimes if I do – it’s interesting to see what else people’ve done.)

I do have some bits of criticism about the programme. Firstly, it suffered slightly from Discovery documentary syndrome in that it was constantly presented as “solving the mystery”. Also the script was oddly repetitive. Almost every time Mountford talked to an expert she’d ask a long detailed question, then the expert would repeat most of the question followed by their (short) answer, then Mountford would repeat most of the question prefaced with a phrase like “so now we know why …”. But those are just niggles, it was well worth watching.

Programmes we’ve watched before about Pompeii & Herculaneum (like Mary Beard’s one which I’ve got a brief write-up of on lj) have concentrated on what the towns tell us about how Romans lived. This programme concentrated on how they died, using what we now know about volcanoes and about the way that bodies react to different temperatures to build up a picture of the last day of these people’s lives. It was actually a fairly distressing programme – nothing gruesome shown, but they did a good job of bringing across the horror of the event and of making you empathise with the people. The “drama” side of this drama documentary was limited to some (really rather impressive) CGI of the eruption and some vignettes of people running through the streets or huddling in shelter – which was just about the right amount of drama for me.

Pliny the Younger had actually described the eruption from witnessing it across the Bay of Naples, but some elements of his description had been dismissed in more recent times as being the result of an overactive imagination. In particular he described a part of the column of smoke & ash as separating off and rolling down the mountain. “Obviously” this had to be wrong, surely only lava spills out over the land. This view was then completely overturned by footage of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 – another way for a volcano to erupt involves a pyroclastic flow of superheated gas & bits of rock & ash that moves very very fast along the ground (at or over the speed of sound). Mountford talked to an expert who said that this happens when the magma has a lot of gas in it.

It was these pyroclastic flows that killed the people in both Herculaneum and Pompeii – the differences in the remains between the towns is caused by the different distances from Vesuvius. There were 5 pyroclastic flows in total, all of which reached Herculaneum. The people in the town had taken shelter in the boat sheds which would’ve been a safe place in the event of an earthquake (and the eruption was preceded by earthquakes). When the first pyroclastic flow reached Herculaneum it was still at a temperature of about 500°C. The people huddling in the boat sheds died instantly, and the temperature was sufficiently high to vaporise their flesh leaving only charred bones and cracked skulls from where their brains had boiled and exploded. As I said, gruesome.

Pompeii is about 5km further from Vesuvius than Herculaneum, and the first 3 pyroclastic flows didn’t reach that far. In fact it wasn’t until dawn the next day (about 18 hours after the initial eruption) that Pompeii was in true danger. This had been enough time that some people had even returned to their houses to grab their valuables & coin, which would be fatal. The fourth pyroclastic flow reached Pompeii, and the added distance it had travelled had reduced the heat to around 300°C. Mountford visited a lab in Edinburgh where they demonstrated what happens to a piece of pork wrapped in woollen cloth at that temperature. The outside edges of the meat were seared but the cloth was still intact & only slightly discoloured. And this is what happened to the inhabitants of Pompeii – they were instantaneously killed by the heat, but their clothing & flesh remained intact. They were then buried in ash which formed a solid shell around their bodies. Inside these shells the soft tissue & cloth gradually decomposed, and when they were discovered the archaeologists filled the spaces with plaster & then removed the ash. This left the casts around the bones that we see today – complete with impressions of the clothes the people were wearing.

The last part of the programme was about an artist doing facial reconstructions of two of the victims – a woman from Herculaneum and a man from Pompeii. These are always neat to see, and humanise the remains, but I do wonder how accurate they are. I mean, you can tell some stuff about facial structure from the bones, but would their mothers’ recognise them?

Glad we recorded it even though it said “drama documentary”, it was a good programme.

The sixth & last episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music talked about the last 100 years of music – the Popular Age. The biggest difference between this era and previous eras is that the advent of radio and of easily available recorded music changed how people could listen to music. It became more omnipresent and you could listen to what you wanted when you wanted to.

The main theme of the programme was that as classical music became increasingly remote and snobbish the vacuum was filled by popular music – starting with jazz. One example of this that Goodall presented was musicals. The same sorts of people who previously would’ve gone to operas in the 19th Century are those who go to the musicals performed on Broadway or the West End today. And popular music took over the role of commenting on current affairs as classical became increasingly abstract or irrelevant. He contrasted the Threepenny Opera* or Porgy and Bess with a surrealist ballet called Parade (score written by Satie; Cocteau & Picasso were involved). The former two were relevant (and well liked by audiences) whereas the latter was out of touch with the times and not accessible/interesting to a particularly wide audience either. Later, after the Second World War, popular music continued to provide social commentary – Vietnam protest songs, for instance, and Bob Dylan’s work.

*I had no idea that the song Mack the Knife was originally a German song in this musical! Odd & cool to hear it being sung in the original.

Classical music during this period moved towards things like Schoenberg’s abstract compositional style where the 12 notes of the western scale aren’t allowed to be repeated within a phrase, and where there’s no “home” chord. Basically we’re into the sort of thing that in my head I think of as “that modern classical stuff I don’t like”. But Goodall points out that this isn’t all that classical is doing during the last 100 years and people claiming that “classical is dead” clearly never go to the cinema! Most film scores are classical music and are written in a style that’s appreciated by a much wider audience than the more avant garde stuff.

Goodall talked us through some of the developments in popular music as well. Not just jazz, but also the rise of rock & roll and the way that was initially shaped by the new teenage market for music. He spent a while discussing The Beatles, and how they moved from their rock & roll beginnings. They not only innovated within their genre, inventing new styles & recording techniques, but also drew on the past of classical music (amongst other things). And this lead neatly into a discussion of how even though American rock & roll has spread throughout the world it has also started to incorporate music from other cultures (and there has also been a rise in people listening to the originals of this music). The Indian influences on The Beatles music were the first point in this segment of the programme, he also mentioned Paul Simon’s South African influenced album Graceland.

He also talked about how classical music was still the source of some innovations that were later taken up by popular music – he cited sampling, which originated with a classical piece but is now one of the foundational underpinnings of a lot of popular music. And he discussed how the cross-fertilisation between the two sorts of music is beginning to work both ways – some modern classical composers are taking ideas & inspiration from popular artists (he gave an example of a symphony that took inspiration from a Bowie album). So Goodall ended the series on a hopeful note for classical music – it’s not dead, and it’s even coming back to being relevant to a wider audience than music critics & composers.

I’ve enjoyed watching this series, it was both informative & interesting. It’s also pretty biased – very much it’s the story of Western classical music (even this last episode is more about the classical music of the era than the popular music). But then he does say right at the start of the first episode that “there are many ways to tell the story of music, this one is [his]” so that’s not a surprise.