Saturday, December 7, 2013

BBC Documentary: Pompeii: The Mystery of People Frozen In Time

Narrated by Margaret Mountford, this documentary seeks to answer two questions: How exactly did the people of Pompeii die and why are their bodies so beautifully preserved. Mountford's is shown around the amazing ruins of Pompeii by Paul Roberts, Head of the Roman Collections at the British Museum.

Unlike many historic volcanic eruptions, Pompeii provides a very unusual archeological setting; the casts of Pompeii preserved real people which makes them unique.

The eruption began on August 24, 79 AD, heralded by a powerful earthquake in the morning. At 1pm Vesuvius erupted violently. A huge column of ash 14 km high was pushed into the atmosphere. It became dark as night and pumice, ash and chunks of solidified lava began to rain down on the city. In less than one hour, the column was 32 km high. It was thought that the ash was responsible for killing the people of Pompeii by causing them to suffocate. This was based on the statue of a muleteer with his hands covering his face which was seen as evidence that the people suffocated by ash. But this interpretation was questioned by some including Dr. Peter Baxter or Cambridge University who felt that the sitting posture of the man did not suggest suffocation?
If they didn't die from the ash, what did cause their deaths and the unusual positions of many of the people in death?

Body cast of muleteer
Herculaneum, a smaller city of five thousand to the west provided the clues. Herculaneum was a city of mainly very wealthy Romans who holidayed there. It was closer to Vesuvius and therefore felt the eruption much more strongly. There were very few human remains found and it was assumed the population of the city fled in time. However, in the 1980's a group of sheds near the harbour were discovered. In these sheds and in their vicinity during excavations, some 300 skeletons were discovered. Dr. Pier Paolo Petroni states that based on the condition of the skulls, which are fractured and blackened inside, there is evidence that these people were subjected to very high temperatures, high enough the cause their brains to boil and explode. Their bodies were reduced to skeletons. Like Pompeii there was no lava found in Herculaneum, suggesting a very different kind of eruption.

Pliny the Younger, a Roman magistrate was a witness to the eruption of Vesuvius. His letters to the historian, Tacitus, describing the eruption in great deal have provided geologists and archeologists with valuable information on the eruption. Twelve hours after the initial eruption, Vesuvius was still spewing forth large volumes of ash and gas. Pliny wrote about a great mass of material which swept down the mountainside. His description was not fully understood until the eruption of Mount St. Helen's in 1980, in which a pyroclastic flow, of approximately 700 C flowed horizontally for 10 km, destroying everything in its path. It appears Herculaneum and the people in the the boat sheds experienced a similar event during the Vesuvius eruption.

One of the casts in Pompeii is that of a woman with her arms raised. It was thought that this woman was defending herself against an attacker but now it is understood that her position is characteristic of a person who was killed by intense heat, causing her to raise her arms, with the arm muscles contracting permanently in this position which she remained after death. Could there then have been a second pyroclastic flow from Vesuvius that reached Pompeii? And if so why are the remains of the people there so different from those found at Herculaneum?

Watch this short documentary to learn the answers to these questions and watch them reconstruct the skulls of two victims of Vesuvius. Pompeii: The Mystery of People Frozen in Time is a fascinating reconstruction of this historic disaster that has captured the imagination of archeologists and the public for decades. The reconstruction of the faces of two people who died in the disaster put a human face on this tragedy that occurred two thousand years ago.

For further reading:

Pliny the Younger: Witness to a Catastrophe
Letters of Pliny the Younger to the Historian Tacitus

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