In AD 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the Roman city of Pompeii, as well as nearby Herculaneum. The disaster killed many of the citizens, but also preserved many aspects of their lives, creating one of the greatest archeological sites ever discovered. Buildings, art and other artifacts were found frozen as they were on that fateful day when they were covered in volcanic ash.
The city was rediscovered in 1594 when workmen were digging a tunnel to divert water from the River Sarno. At the time they could not identify the site. Even when an inscription referring to Pompeii was found in 1689, the mysterious buried city remained unidentified. In 1763, after years of excavations, the city was recognized as Pompeii. Archeologists have excavated all but a third of the city and are mainly working to preserve the parts that have already been uncovered and exposed to the elements. The breadth of archeological discoveries is immense, and each discovery helps paint a picture of everyday life of the ancient people.
The Pompeiians in the city at the time of the eruption were suffocated by volcanic gases, then very quickly covered with ash and other debris from Vesuvius. Similar to how fossils are formed, their bodies decayed inside of the matter, which eventually hardened, leaving an air pocket with their imprint. The process essentially formed a mold of the bodies. Archeologists working to excavate the city quickly realized this and then filled the air pockets inside with plaster. Many of these bodies were found in various places, some lying down, some sitting, some frozen in positions of prayer. The people sought shelter in their homes and in temples, but still tragically lost their lives. Men, women, children as well as the wealthy and the lower class were found, shedding light on their last moments. Items the people were wearing, like jewelry and other possessions, were found with the bodies, giving indications of their social status. The bodies also provide information about average height, weight and other biometric features of the people.
The ash did a remarkable job protecting the art of the city. The Romans were a people who prided themselves on aesthetics, but unfortunately very few actual Roman paintings survived into modern times - with the exception of the frescoes of Pompeii. Two noteworthy private residences contained numerous frescoes: Boscoreale and Boscotrecase. Boscoreale was home to many aristocratic families and featured many still-life type paintings, some dating back to around 40 BC that remained brightly colored as if recently painted. Archaeologists also found graffiti on some of the buildings from around the time of the eruption. Boscotrecase was another important part of the city and contained paintings of the Roman imperial family in addition to many other paintings. At the time of the eruption no one was living in Boscotrecase, as indicated by the lack of everyday items found there. Frescoes were also found in the famous House of Pygmies, as well as inside of brothels and other business establishments. The art sheds light on how Romans dressed and the importance they placed on art, from paintings of flowers to erotic paintings to detailed portraits of citizens.
Among the well-preserved buildings uncovered were bakeries, offices, the market, many temples, bath houses and of course brothels and private villas. Because the buildings and items inside of them were protected by the ash, many things have been learned about everyday Roman life. Recent discoveries have indicated much about the bustling economy and everyday life in the city, mainly of the common people. Freed slaves could become upstanding citizens, and there were many powerful, important women as well. Truths have been revealed about the working class down to the smallest details, such as what they ate. Surprisingly, the lower classes seemed to eat just as well as the nobles. They also had the same access to the sophisticated Roman sanitation systems, even in the poorer parts of the city. Thus a historical tragedy of great proportions has left us with an archaeological legacy, giving us an understanding we would not have otherwise had.