Wednesday, June 26, 2013

History mystery: Pompeii The Resurrection of a City -1

Almost 2,000Years ago a provincial city in Italy was buried beneath a thick layer of volcanic ash. Hundreds of years later Pompeii was discovered – a miraculously preserved mausoleum which provides a vivid record of the life of a Roman city? ON THE MORNING OF AUGUST 24, AD 79, Carts and mules jostled their way through the streets of Pompeii. Peddlers hawked their wares from wayside stalls. Girls gossiped lazily at a corner fountain. In a wine shop, a customer had just put his money down on the counter for a drink. But the barmaid had no time to pick up the coins. For suddenly, a terrifying noise ripped through the air. Vesuvius (Vesuvio), the volcanic mountain which dominated the town, had erupted. Under pressure from the gases inside, the plug of lava that blocked the opening of the volcano had burst, releasing a great mass of red-hot lava. Solidifying into balls of stone as it cooled, the lava rained down on the houses and blotted out the sun. By nightfall on August 25, Pompeii was buried beneath about 6m (20ft) of lava, dust and ashes. It happened too quickly for many of the inhabitants to escape. Asphyxiated by gases and crushed beneath tumbling buildings, they fell in the streets or met death in their homes and cellars.

Before he died, one of them recalled the terrible fate that had befallen two Old Testament cities by scratching ‘Sodom and Gomorrah!’ on a whitewashed wall. Fortunately for us, the modern world has an eyewitness account of the fall of Pompeii. The two letters which the Roman writer Pliny the Younger sent to the historian Tacitus are exceptionally vivid. Pliny the Younger was staying with his uncle, Pliny the Elder, at Misenum, 30km (19 miles) from Pompeii. This is what he saw as he made his escape: ‘Ashes were already falling,’ he wrote, ‘not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood…. ‘Darkness fell, not the dark of the moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room. You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, other their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying.  ‘Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the Universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.’

 At the time Pliny the Elder (a Roman administrator and himself a profile writer) commanded the Roman fleet at Misenum. When the eruption first started, he went by boat to Stabiae to rescue a friend and get a closer view. After spending the night there, he ‘decided to go down to the shore and investigate the possibility of any escape by sea,’ wrote his nephew, ‘but he found the waves wild and dangerous. A sheet was spread on the ground for him to lie down, and he repeatedly asked for cold water to drink. Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense fumes choked his breathing. When daylight returned two days after the last day he had seen, his body was found intact…..still fully clothed and looking more like in sleep than death.’ Embalmed in lava, Pompeii remained undiscovered for nearly 1700 years. It was not until 1748 that Joaquin de Alcubierre, engineer to the King of Naples, chanced upon its business quarter. In order to inspect an old water tunnel, he sank pa shaft into the ground and unearthed a brilliant wall-painting. Next, he came upon the body of a Pompeiian clutching a fistful of gold.

No one will ever know whether this man as a thief or was just trying to flee with money he had saved over the years. Alcubierre went on excavating the site. It was another 100 years before the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli introduced the policy of moving forward slowly, house by house, to make sure that nothing was lost in the excavation. He also devised the technique of pouring plaster into the cavities left by the bodies, so that they reappeared as they were at the moment of death. As the city was disinterred, it seemed to come back to life. Vesuvius, the cause of Pompeii’s destruction, looms to the north of the city. Pompeii’s chief north-south through fare was the Via di Stabia (1), running between the Vesuvius Gate (2) and the Stabian Gate (3). Running east-west were the Via di Nola, from the Nola Gate (4) across to the west side of the city, and the Via dell’ Abbondanza, between the Samus (5) and Marine (6) gates. The gate in the north-west corner of the walls (7) led to the neighbouring city of Herculaneum.

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