Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum: Unearthing the treasures in the British Museum’s exhibition
The British Museum is currently hosting a fascinating exhibition looking at life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. It will be running until the 29th September 2013, and you can find out further information here. We ask Christopher Smith, Director of the British School at Rome, for his thoughts on the exhibition, and what he believes has changed since 1976 when the first major British exhibition on the subject was held.
We are also pleased to offer free access to a selection of articles published in the array of Classics Journals published by Cambridge, which offer a wide range of possibilities to further exploration of this exciting area.
What’s new since 1976?
Thirty seven years ago the Royal Academy hosted a major exhibition Pompeii AD 79 (sponsored by Imperial Tobacco Limited), the first British exhibition on the subject. The catalogue authors were John Ward-Perkins, just retired as Director of the British School at Rome (BSR), and Amanda Claridge, who would become Assistant Director. In 2013 Paul Roberts (Rivoira Scholar, BSR, 1989) with the assistance of Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, my predecessor at the BSR, produced Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum (sponsored by Goldman Sachs). So, apart from the substitution of tobacco companies by financial institutions, what has changed?
The British Museum (BM) exhibition has the advantage of modern museology – the sounds of the street, the artificial projection of an impluvium – and modern interests. Pompeii AD 79 showed rather more wall paintings, for instance; Life and Death has a carbonized crib and the remains from a sewer. We know more about volcanology, and the BM’s affecting use of the Fiorelli casts gains emotional depth through the story of the terrible last moments of both cities. But the real steps forward are in the major new discoveries; the information on diet and health contained in the material from the Herculaneum drains, and the bodies on the beach at Herculaneum, unknown until the 1980s. Herculaneum, where the BSR has been part of a major conservation campaign alongside the Superintendency and the Packard Humanities Institute, has also very recently saved a stunning painted roof from the House of Telephus, giving us an insight into the decorative effects favoured by a fashionable first century AD home-owner, and, in some ways most intriguingly of all, new fragments of a list of citizens. This list still contains many problems to be solved, but what it undoubtedly shows is how significant the freedman population was in Herculaneum; it exceeded the freeborn population.
What kind of house? What kind of city? What kind of history?
The BM exhibition invents a sort of ideal-type of house as a way of structuring the show, but this begs the enormous question of what kind of society we are looking at. This stretches right down to the nature of the houses – recent work has looked at the houses as modular builds, and assessing the range of the quality of accommodation remains an interesting challenge, which is further complicated by having to take into account the damaging consequences of the earthquake of 62 AD.In some ways, the history of scholarship on Pompeii and Herculaneum has always struggled with the uniqueness of the finds but the relatively lowly nature of the settlements, and the information about the nature of the population has made this even more interesting. The other change is to question how we use evidence. We used to make much more straightforward translations from object to action, and it is interesting to see the Pompeii AD 79 catalogue with its object-centred entries as opposed to the discursive style of Life and Death – objects presented as part of a storyand sometimes regarded as misleading – ‘graffiti are not always true.’
For many visitors and commentators, it is the current state of the sites which arouses interest, and criticism, sometimes a distance from the realities of managing sites of this size and complexity, which are open to the elements, and accommodate hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. It is indeed the case that conservation is a critical area for future action and research. Both sites are open museums and open laboratories, sometimes to the disadvantage of visitors, who are excluded from houses where restoration is taking place, but who criticise the poor condition of open areas. Advances in conservation and visitor management as well as in scientific techniques are perhaps even more important now than new archaeological research. But the cost of even standing still with sites like this is truly enormous.At the same time, there is so much more to learn. We still know far too little about the earlier histories of the towns, and Pompeii is beginning to yield interesting information about its pre-Roman phases. Microhistories of individual buildings can bring new insights into individual choice and action. The combination of DNA analysis and the lists of inscribed names has the potential for some major advances in understanding Campanian demography. And this autumn, the BSR will publish an article which sheds new light on the post-eruption knowledge of Pompeii and Herculaneum, by HCP archaeologist Domenico Camardo. So there is every reason to hope that in 37 years’ time, in 2050, there will be new stories to tell about Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Domenico Carnado’s article on Pompeii and Herculaneum will be published in the October issue of Papers of the British School at Rome. To ensure you are notified when the issue is published please sign up for content alerts.