On August 24th, 79AD, one day following Vulcanalia, the Roman festival for the god of fire, Mt Vesuvius erupted and buried the town of Pompeii in layers of ash and pumice.  At the time, those living in Pompeii were not even aware that the beautiful mountain dominating their horizon was an active volcano.  In fact, the hadn’t even a word yet for volcano in their vocabulary.

Charlotte, NC was one of only four cities in the United States granted permission to display for the next few months artifacts and the body casts of people, pets and even livestock uncovered in Pompeii.  

Today I took the girls to the exhibit.  I knew I couldn’t fully explain the devastation, so I did my best to help them understand what we would be seeing once we entered the exhibit by showing them a BBC film about the disaster and also by talking about what life would have been like for people living 2000 years ago.  

Inside the museum we saw frescos – (and we learned the word fresco translated into English means “fresh” and described the method of painting murals while the plaster was still wet, or fresh) – preserved by the hot ash ovens with bread still inside, jewelry, currency, and several types of amphorae which were large ceramic vessels that held oil, wine, fish or grain.  Inscribed on one of these amphora was the Latin word “Auctus” which gave rise to our English word meaning auction.  The writing also described the day the piece was sold at auction, “under a blue sky” and the name of either the buyer or the seller.  This information was relayed to us by a scholar and actress dressed as if she had just walked out of the first century.     

I didn’t realize we would be seeing the body-casts.  We were lead down a dark hall into a darkened room where only the eerie white casts of bodies could be seen.  These casts were made by Giuseppe Fiorelli who excavated the site during the nineteenth century.  According to Wiki, “During early excavations of the site, occasional voids in the ash layer had been found that contained human remains. It was Fiorelli who realised these were spaces left by the decomposed bodies…”  Fiorelli devised a way of injecting plaster into the molds thus preserving the bodies of victims of Vesuvius down to the expressions on their faces.  

Even I was not prepared for the emotions that swept through me.  And my youngest begged to go home.  The sight was both compelling and humbling:   The dog chained and without hope of surviving; the couple holding each-other in one final embrace; the slaves whose legs were bound; the woman who tried in vain to cover her face with a cloth against the toxic plume; the pig whose ribs shown through patches of thick skin.  The images will haunt me for some time.  Not in the bad way you might imagine, but in a way that reminds us of our own mortality and keeps us present in the moment.  These casts are the ghosts of our history and they tell their own stories to us individually.  

A walk through uptown concluded our day in Pompeii where our cityscape, though taller, is not all that different.  We still build monuments to ourselves of marble and adorn these buildings with art and sculpture.  We walk the crowded streets full of bustling commerce.  And we walk among those more or less fortunate than ourselves in that imaginary hierarchy that means little in the scheme of things; for the slaves of Pompeii are remembered and revered alongside the wealthiest and most influential members of their society. 

Above: Bronze statues at Trade and Tryon, the Hearst Tower (my favorite building)

And I can’t leave out the gals who had a splendid adventure.  I love that Wolfy is just fixated on the Bank of America tower.  You can’t see the top when your standing at street level – it’s pretty magical for a little person.

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