Pompeii is a well-known archaeological site near the volcano of Mt. Vesuvius. It was a thriving Roman city until 79 AD when the sudden volcanic eruption rained volcanic rock and ash, and later pyroclastic flows and poisonous gases, down on everyone and everything, causing the town to become frozen in an eternal scene of their final moments. The town of Pompeii is so well preserved by its rapid fossilization that it provides archaeologists with the rare opportunity of being able to study details of society, art and culture, and even diet, that would normally be destroyed by degradation or erosion.
Unfortunately, in excavating Pompeii, the architecture and artwork has been exposed to the elements and decay is inevitable. Despite conservation attempts, the decay continues. Thus large-scale, open-air excavations have ceased, leaving the remaining 22 hectares for future generations to uncover. However, there are plenty of examples of the art and architecture of the time. There are 44 hectares of the city that have been excavated and can be explored and a wide variety of areas have been identified. The city is divided into Insulae which are divided into street blocks containing structures. Many of these structures are houses, but there are other significant buildings that have been discovered within the city. The most architecturally significant building found was a basilica, as it is one of the oldest examples found. This building contained the courts of law and business activities.
A building with three chambers has been identified as a public administration building where financial administration took place and police magistrates and municipal senates operated. Temples to Apollo and Jupiter and the unfinished temple to Vespasian have been found, as well as celebratory arches dedicated to Nero and Drusus. The Forum is surrounded by the Portico and was the center of religious, municipal and economic activities in the city. The Macellum was the chief food market and contains many statues and shops. Finally, the wool and cloth exchange housing the fullers’ guild for fabric cleaners and dealers was named after Eumachia after she paid for the construction of this building following an earthquake in AD 62.
The art found in Pompeii includes frescoes (paintings on plaster), murals (paintings on walls), canvas paintings, mosaics and sculptures. Some of the art was religious and others showed historical scenes such as battles or everyday objects. There are remarkable works of art that have been preserved in Pompeii. Frescoes, mosaics and inscriptions of an erotic nature have also been found in the sleeping rooms and the walls of houses, probably related to worship of Venus, Pompeii’s patron deity and the goddess of love and beauty, or Priapus, the god of sex and fertility, and possibly a means of increasing the fertility of the inhabitants of the homes.
The inhabitants of Pompeii who were killed and buried when Mt. Vesuvius erupted are preserved in incredible detail. Although their physical remains have long since burnt or decayed, the ash that covered them formed a perfect cast of their bodies. These casts can be filled with plaster and portray vivid scenes of the last moments experienced by the inhabitants of Pompeii. A family of four ran through the streets in an attempt to escape the effects of the volcano and have been found carrying their most treasured possessions. Details down to the hairstyles and the creases in the clothes have been preserved.
A woman carried a gold and silver statue of Mercury in an attempt to escape safely with the aid of the god. Another family hid under a stairway in their home and they were killed when it collapsed on top of them. They were surrounded by coins and jewelry. A man who, was presumably a doctor wanting to help the injured, was found holding a small wooden box containing scalpels, tweezers and other surgical tools. Many other scenes have been discovered showing both slaves and the wealthy attempting to escape in any way possible. Even dogs were found among the victims of the volcano. Among the household items unearthed were perfume bottles, glass jars containing fruit, loaves of bread, silverware, glass beads, jewelry, coins and a candelabra. A carbonized wooden cradle, scales and jugs were also discovered.
According to “The Plant Remains of Pompeii” by John W. Harshberger, a number of plants were preserved in the ashes of Pompeii. They were commonly found inside homes, protected from the rocks and the burning pyroclastic flows sufficiently to be identified and were no doubt used in cooking. Vegetables such as onion, garlic, beans, lentils were found, along with fruit like pears, figs, grapes and apples. There were also two different kinds of barley, millet and chestnuts, which were likely ground into a powder to make bread. Nuts were also eaten by the Pompeii residents and those found in the site include filberts, chestnuts, pine seeds, walnuts and almonds.
The preservation of Pompeii is astounding, and being able to walk down streets and see houses, markets and temples that were inhabited hundreds of years ago is an experience that cannot be had in many other places over the world.