Tremors still shook the ground, but the people of Pompeii knew aftershocks were normal after a big earthquake. The earthquake the day before had been larger than the quakes happening today and no cause for alarm. The day of August 24, AD 79 started normally with bakers kneading their dough while other lumps sat rising in clay bowls and more baked in the wood- or stone-heated ovens. The bath houses filled with morning bathers who sat in steam-filled rooms or swam in the cold baths. Others began walking to the fields for a day’s farming and herding. From across the sea, Pliny the Younger watched as plumes of black shot into the clear blue sky and began drifting toward the large city and the coast. Pliny the Younger would write of the horrifying event 25 years later. His uncle died in the tragedy while trying to rescue people with his boat.
The death of the city
In Pompeii, pumice stone began falling from the sky and as the people looked toward the horizon, horror etched their faces at the blackness racing toward them from the mountain. Pumice continued to fall, knocking some down with its force, and then the sunlight was smothered. All was black as night and the people knew it was too late. They ran from the ash that filled the air and choked their lungs. Most fell dead as ash overcame them and they suffocated. Others huddled inside with family or valuables and hoped the nightmare would spare them. Then there was an explosion and the population was deaf. The ground began screaming under bare feet and the heat became unbearable before it overtook the remaining few and left them frozen in ash and pyroclastic flow that cooled around them like cocoons.
Finding the lost
The fate of Pompeii was a well-known legend, but the location of the large city faded from memories with time. Tunnel diggers came across wall paintings in the 1600s but dated them to a different era. A wall inscription describing a councilor of Pompeii was said to only speak of the person, not indicate Pompeii was under their feet. Finally, in 1748 excavation of the site was ordered and more inscriptions proved the lost city had been there all along. The French archaeologists put in charge of the site employed new methods of studying an ancient city. Objects were uncovered but left in place so the entire context could be studied. The scientists then learned about the culture and daily lives of a civilization. Before this method, archaeological digs were more like looting. Artifacts would be taken to market and sold to the highest bidder. Immediately following the discovery of Pompeii, the rich began wanting wall paintings from the city in their homes. Many frescoes and mosaics were removed and sold to these individuals. The first digs in homes of Pompeii's wealthy were ruined by tearing the walls and floors out and removing any other loose artifacts.
Faces from the past
No other ancient site has ever been found in such pristine condition. The entire city sits frozen in the instant it died. Bread is still in ovens and dishes sit on tables. The bodies of the victims are encased in the ash and pyroclastic flows that overtook the city within moments of hearing the explosion. The bodies inside decomposed but archeologists learned that by pouring plaster into the empty forms, an almost perfect duplicate of the person inside is made. The ash is broken away once the plaster dries and the scientists are able to see a person who lived in 79 A.D. Never before has such an exact picture of ancient people come to light. The horror of the day is etched on the plaster impressions. The castings of the dead lie all over the city, most in the position in which they were discovered. Whole families lie holding each other through the horrible death. Dogs have been found that were chained to buildings or fences. Why did the people of Pompeii stay instead of evacuating at the first signs of an eruption? The fact that these people did not have a word for volcano in their language points to complete ignorance of the potential dangers associated with living at the foot of Vesuvius. Mount Vesuvius erupts approximately every 2,000 years, making it one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
Evidence of an advanced people
The city of Pompeii was home to approximately 20,000 people. Most residents lived within a median income level with only a few living in opulence. Farming and other agricultural occupations fueled the economy. The lands surrounding volcanoes are known for rich, fertile soils and people settle the areas for that reason. The cobblestone streets were lined with bakeries and outside grocers shouting daily specials. Public bath houses were popular, as cleanliness was quite important to the Roman lifestyle. Greece had introduced the practice of frequent bathing to promote good health and Rome took this a step further by inventing indoor plumbing so the rich could bathe in private. The water ran through piping made of stone and brick into homes and the soiled water ran out different pipes and into gutters. The flow continued to underground drainage tunnels and into the sea. Homes and businesses have been found with toilets both downstairs and upstairs. An amazing discovery that brings indoor plumbing to homes much earlier than first thought. Hot water in bath houses was achieved by boilers in lower level rooms where slaves heated water with wood fires and through a series of valves released hot water into the pools. Steam was piped into other rooms by pouring water over hot stones below, and the steam rose through pipes into the chamber. Customers needing more heat or steam would pull a rope to signal those below.
Heavily influenced by Greek mythology, the city hosts temples built to Isis, Apollo, Jupiter and Dionysus. As Rome conquered much of the known world, they would leave the religious practices of native people alone unless it threatened the Roman Empire. By doing this, they faced less resistance once a land had been conquered and it was easier to get the people to work for the Roman cause. Pompeii is a beautiful reflection of this practice, as oftentimes the Roman soldiers would become involved in the religions of local people. Once back in Italy, a cult would form and temples be built in honor of the new deity. The temples were rarely entered by worshipers. Only the highest cult officers were allowed to commune with the deities inside.
The most shocking finds
The frescoes inside homes, businesses and baths often depict erotic activity which shocked early archaeologists. The paintings were re-buried many times as the discoverer did not want anyone to see the pictures. The Roman people were openly sexual by nature as many of their daily deities were there for fertility, virility and desire. The brothel in Pompeii has the names of the working ladies inscribed on the walls. There are lists of prices and the acts that would be performed for each price.
Each day finds new discoveries in Pompeii, the longest-continuing archaeological excavation in the world. The discoveries are interesting insights into a civilization destroyed so long ago. The significance of the finds fascinates all. The everyday lives of these ancient people mirror lives today in many ways. Their plumbing systems and aqueducts were far ahead of other civilizations, yet they did not know what a volcano was or that they lived on the bottom of a very active one.