Sunday, October 22, 2006

Roman Painting

The Grand Hunt This detail of antelope being attacked is part of The Grand Hunt (early 4th century), a large floor mosaic found in the villa at Piazza Armerina, Sicily. The villa had 651 sq m (7000 sq ft) of floor mosaics depicting various scenes from life in the late Roman Empire. The mosaic work may have been done by North African artisans.Scala/Art Resource, NY

The Romans decorated their villas with mosaic floors and exquisite wall frescoes portraying rituals, myths, landscapes, still-life, and scenes of daily activities. Using the technique known as aerial perspective,


in which colors and outlines of more distant objects are softened and blurred to achieve spatial effects, Roman artists created the illusion of reality. In the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ad79 and excavated in modern times, a corpus of Roman painting, both secular and religious, has been preserved.

The Dead Do Tell Tales at Vesuvius

By Rick Gore

Out of a timeless, musty dark, an ancient Roman victim of Mount Vesuvius stares into the 20th century, her teeth clenched in agony. Nearby lie charred and tangled remains of scores of others buried in the wet volcanic earth. The scene is Herculaneum, lesser known sister city of Pompeii. Both cities were destroyed by the A.D. 79 eruption of Vesuvius. The wall painting from Pompeii depicts the wine god, Bacchus, and the mountain's profile that Romans knew before the disaster. Macabre new relics of that eruption were discovered two years ago, as Italian workmen began to excavate a series of seawall chambers that lined ancient Herculaneum's beachfront. Since then many other fragments of lost lives have emerged along the beach: a noble lady with her jewels; a Roman soldier carrying sword and tools; lanterns, coins, and even an intact Roman boat. These discoveries do more than reveal the moving last moments of a terrified population. They bring to the light of science a wealth of new details that already are telling us much more about how people lived, as well as died, in the lost cities of Vesuvius.

The stage has been dark for nearly 2,000 years. Yet enough light shines down through an old well shaft to show me that this buried Roman theater had been grand. Surely it once blazed with spectacles. I close my eyes and see the elegantly marbled proscenium, the acrobats, the preening athletes on exhibit, the bawdy mimes. I hear the lyres, flutes, and cymbals, and the jingling bracelets of dancers. I see a famous actor from Rome, mask in hand and regally clad, waiting to make his entrance.

I open my eyes, and the steady drip of ground water onto the stage reminds me that I am 30 meters (100 feet) underground. This theater, once the opulent pride of the ancient seaside town of Herculaneum, lies beneath a succession of pyroclastic flows and surges. These glowing avalanches began roaring down the slopes of Mount Vesuvius about midnight of August 25 in A.D. 79, scorching and smothering the countryside, including the neighboring city of Pompeii.

My escort, assistant supervisor Vittorio De Girolamo, takes me down a corridor leading to the costume depository. He points his flashlight upward at the hardened volcanic flow overhead. A haunting face stares back down. It is only an imprint, made by the head of a statue that the glowing avalanche picked up as it invaded the theater. Yet this impassive visage testifies that the last performance on this stage was indeed a tragedy.

One can argue that this stage was also where modern archaeology was born. All traces of Pompeii and Herculaneum had been lost until 1709, when a well digger accidentally struck the stage. Tunnels were dug, and soon the ruling nobility of Naples began to loot the theater. They stripped away its multicolored marble facings for their villas and carted off the bronze and marble statues. These royal treasure hunters used hundreds of laborers, including some prisoners, to dig numerous additional tunnels out from the theater to plunder the rest of buried Herculaneum.

I walk along one of these narrow old corridors and feel as if I am caving back through time. I see the name of an earlier visitor—"Pihan, 1793"—etched into the volcanic wall.

Abruptly the tunnel is blocked by rubble. If I could continue my walk, however, this labyrinth would bring me into the heart of Herculaneum, much of which has been once again exposed to air by archaeologists over the past half century. I could walk past the Trellis House with its graceful balcony. I could continue to the House of the Mosaic Atrium and stand in the elegant triclinium, where a wealthy family took their summer meals overlooking the Bay of Naples.

The bay today is nearly half a kilometer away. The same volcanic flows that buried Herculaneum covered the ancient beach to a depth of 20 meters.

In the past few years a strip of that beach has been excavated, and I could descend the steep stairs to the old coast. There in the seawall of the town are ten recently uncovered chambers, probably once used to store fishing boats. In those chambers today, however, lie some of Herculaneum's most important discoveries since that 18th-century well digger found himself on center stage.

Archaeologists have long held that almost all Herculaneum's population had time to escape Vesuvius's wrath. Only a dozen or so skeletons were found in the town versus the hundreds that were excavated at Pompeii, on the other side of Vesuvius.

Classical scholars had assumed that after Herculaneum's population fled, the town had been embalmed by airtight mud slides. At Pompeii, they concluded, the people were felled over a period of hours by a smothering snow of ash and pumice. These scholars knew nothing about glowing avalanches and their pyroclastic flows. Not until early in this century did scientists actually observe these phenomena, also called nuées ardentes, which are made up of superhot gas and debris and which rush down mountainsides at hurricane speeds. Moreover, the cooled flows at Herculaneum do resemble hardened mud.

In the early 1900s two American volcanologists suggested that glowing avalanches had occurred at Vesuvius. But archaeologists and volcanologists alike continued to gloss over the question of exactly what killed the people on the slopes of Vesuvius. Then, in 1981, Michael Sheridan of Arizona State University, working with Franco Barberi and a team of Italian volcanologists, corroborated the concept of glowing avalanches.

In early 1982 striking human evidence for these volcanic storms emerged. Under the direction of Giuseppe Maggi, workmen began excavating Herculaneum's seafront chambers. The chambers, they found, were filled with the skeletons of people who obviously had met sudden death.

Two years earlier Dr. Maggi's crew had unearthed three skeletons on the beach in front of the chambers. This had led Maggi to speculate that Herculaneum might not have been as thoroughly abandoned as thought. Suddenly, faced with so many new skeletons, he had to ask whether anyone in Herculaneum could have had time to escape.

In the summer of 1982 Maggi had led me into the first chamber. As my eyes adapted to the dark, a pitiful cluster of skeletons emerged from the wet volcanic ash at my feet. They seemed to have been huddled together. Maggi is convinced they were a household in flight: seven adults, four children, and a baby lying cradled beneath one of the adults. The most striking skeleton lay with head buried, as if sobbing into a pillow.

"In this chamber nature has composed a masterpiece of pathos," Dr. Maggi told me. "One is deeply moved by the postures. You can imagine each person trying to find courage next to another." If that chamber was one of pathos, the next was a chamber of horrors. A host of tangled, charred skeletons, including that of a horse, lay chaotically strewn. "I think these people descended the stairs terrified," said Maggi. "In panic they tried to take refuge in this chamber."

As I entered, I could almost sense a collective groan across the ages. I could almost hear the screaming as the fiery avalanche struck. It must have been like being trapped in a furnace.

Now it is a year later, and I have returned for the third time to Herculaneum. Now another chamber has been opened. Its many victims lie inexplicably aligned, as though in orderly streams. "They look like they are floating down the River Styx," says a colleague.…

Sara Bisel, a physical anthropologist who specializes in the analysis of ancient bones, has been on site since my first visit. She was sent by the National Geographic Society at Dr. Maggi's urgent request to preserve the newfound skeletons.…

Meanwhile, University of Rhode Island volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson is in a tunnel, sampling the volcanic deposits that cover Herculaneum. Sigurdsson, whose research is also being sponsored by the National Geographic Society, had just coauthored a new interpretation of the timing and nature of the A.D. 79 eruption when the skeletons were revealed. To him these human remains offer a unique opportunity. The way they lie in the ancient strata will help him work out a moment-by-moment scenario of how Vesuvius took those lives.

Then, inside a corrugated metal shed that now protects the Roman boat, I find a third Geographic-sponsored scientist, Richard Steffy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A & M. The boat's blackened hull was severely charred by the glowing avalanches. It will be exquisitely difficult to excavate. Nevertheless, Steffy remains enthusiastic.…

The Bay of Naples is a crucible where the African Continent is crunching into Europe, creating a legacy of earthquakes and volcanoes. Vesuvius itself has been quiet since 1944. But the area remains shell-shocked from a severe earthquake that struck in 1980, paralyzing and demoralizing Naples.

Moreover, in the past year tremors have wracked the nearby town of Pozzuoli. Half its residents have fled, and scientists cannot discount that the eruption of a new volcano, possibly even more violent than Vesuvius, may be brewing beneath the town.

Nor do the residents of modern Herculaneum, known now as Ercolano, trust the slumbering Vesuvius. As Ercolano native Matteo Paparo tells me: "Where we live, there is a fire under our houses."

Two thousand years ago the people living on the slopes of Vesuvius had no such realization. Most probably did not even suspect that their mountain, peaceful for at least 300 years, was a volcano.

Even the great Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who lived across the bay in Misenum, regarded the large cloud that burst out of Vesuvius on that dreadful August 24 more as a novelty than a danger. As commander of the Roman fleet, Pliny ordered a ship to take him to the site to investigate the phenomenon and evacuate anxious friends.

The elder Pliny met his death in the disaster. But his nephew, Pliny the Younger, watching from his uncle's house, detailed the eruption in elegant, chilling prose. The history of Vesuvius really begins with that description. Only one other account of the cataclysm at Vesuvius has survived the Dark Ages. Indeed, if Pliny's letters had perished, no one in the 18th century would have known that they were unearthing Herculaneum and later Pompeii.…

Pompeii was probably founded by the aboriginal Oscan people many centuries before the A.D. 79 eruption. Over time the city was conquered by the Greeks, the Etruscans, and by a belligerent Italic race called the Samnites, who greatly expanded it. About 80 B.C. the Romans made Pompeii a colony. They infused it with their culture and turned it into a major agricultural center, specializing in the export of fish sauce and wine.

Like modern Naples, Pompeii's economy was characterized by small manufacturing businesses, often family run and operating out of the home. A painting outside a former felt-making factory on the heavily commercial Via dell'Abbondanza testifies to Pompeii's mercantile spirit: A winged Mercury alights bearing a bag of money.

When Vesuvius erupted, Pompeii was still recuperating from a devastating earthquake that had struck the region in A.D. 62. The roof of Pompeii's great basilica had collapsed, as had structures throughout the town. Seventeen years later the Pompeians must have noted with dread the minor earthquakes that probably preceded the imminent eruption. Little did they know that the danger this time would come from the same mountain whose fertility had blessed them with prosperity.

How did the eruption begin? I ask Sigurdsson as we walk through the town.

"Probably the earthquakes became a continuous vibration, or a harmonic tremor," he explains. "Then, I imagine there was a series of small but spectacular steam explosions that opened a crater at the summit.

"In the early afternoon on August 24 the city would have been rocked by a tremendous 'Plinian blast.'" It is called that because the blast created the great umbrella-shaped cloud that Pliny saw from Misenum.

"This eruption column, laden with pumice and ash, must have risen 20 kilometers or more. About 30 minutes after the blast the falling pumice began to cover the city. There was no lava in this eruption. The magma was too explosive, too filled with steam and other hot volatiles. Steam turns magma to a froth we call pumice….

"The pumice accumulated at 15 centimeters [six inches] an hour. After about four hours, or by late afternoon, roofs would have started collapsing from the weight. The eruption created close to total darkness…."

As the volcano's energy abated, it could no longer sustain the 20-kilometer-high eruption column, which began fluctuating like a giant fountain. At the fountain's ebb, enormous quantities of fine ash and pumice collapsed onto the volcano's flanks, becoming those lethal glowing avalanches.

Several of those avalanches, Sigurdsson has recently determined, stopped before reaching Pompeii. One came right up to the walls of the town. These avalanches and the vegetation and buildings they ignited probably created the bonfires Pliny the Elder attributed to peasants. No doubt they triggered panic atop the pumice-covered streets of Pompeii….

Wandering back through Pompeii, I can see evidence of those surges everywhere I look. Just above head height, where the protective pumice blanket ended, many walls appear clipped off, as if by some huge scythe.

Then there are the many famous plaster casts of humans and even a chained dog at their anguished moments of death. In the 1860s chief excavator Giuseppe Fiorelli developed a technique of injecting plaster into hollows that his diggers came across in the volcanic earth. These hollows were, in effect, molds created as the bodies of victims decayed. Thus the plaster preserved the forms and postures of people as they fell….

Pompeii had at least three public baths. Yet perhaps the most sumptuous so far unearthed on the Bay of Naples lies on the other side of Vesuvius at Herculaneum.

I well recall my first visit to the Suburban Baths. A skylight in its delightful, atrium-like entry room illuminated a fountain featuring a delicate bust of Apollo. Remnants of wall-to-wall paintings still adorned the frigidarium, or cool bath.…

I was visiting the bath that day with Sara Bisel. Just below us was Herculaneum's ancient beach and the chambers with all those bones that had brought her to Herculaneum. Later that day I crouched with her on the beach as she dug out her first skeleton, a female we nicknamed Portia.

Alas, poor Portia. Her skull was smashed, her pelvis crushed, and now Sara Bisel was playing what seemed like a grisly game of pick-up-sticks with her bones. Yet I felt oddly elated to see sunlight striking Portia's battered bones and to watch flies buzz about her for the first time in nearly 2,000 years.

"Portia had a great fall. I'd bet she was flung from up in the town," said Bisel as she worked. "She clearly landed on her face from some distance. There are roof tiles beneath her. Her thigh bone was thrust up to her clavicle. I don't know if I can put her together again, but I'll learn a lot about her.

"I'll determine her height by measuring one of her long bones. The state of her pelvis will tell her age and how many babies, if any, she had. I might even tell you whether she was pretty, but her face is shattered. Her bones should reveal whether she was well nourished, whether she had any of a number of diseases, and whether she had to work hard for a living. And she's just one person. There's a whole town here!"

On this and subsequent visits I wandered the streets of that town, which differs dramatically from Pompeii.

For one thing, the wet burden of earth, moistened by the copious groundwater that flows down Vesuvius, has sealed and preserved Herculaneum far better than the pumice blanket could protect Pompeii. Kept continuously wet and protected from air and climatic changes, many perishable items of everyday life remained intact, albeit often charred. Whole pieces of furniture—beds, cupboards, tables, and chairs—along with fishnets and such foodstuffs as cereals, bread loaves, eggs, vegetables, and even chicken bones, were unearthed much as they were when abruptly abandoned. Herculaneum thus gives us a more intimate look at Roman life.

The wet earth was also what kept Herculaneum's skeletons in such good condition. For as the victims decayed, the conserving mud compressed about the bones, rather than leaving mere hollows as at higher and drier and ash-covered Pompeii.

Herculaneum still greets the visitor with the same unhurried air that one breathes now off-season at nearby Capri or Positano. Like the latter resort, it once descended steeply to the sea, making heavy commercial traffic impossible. Its vistas must have enchanted the wealthy Romans who came here on retreat.

Idyllic as Herculaneum was, it was more than a resort. Much fishing equipment was unearthed. Therefore, many of its 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants lived off the sea. Herculaneum lacks the numerous small factories that characterized Pompeii, it seems more a town of craftsmen and artisans. Yet the many refined houses, and indeed the elaborate theater and baths, tell us that a corps of affluent, cultured people also made their home in Herculaneum.

One of these homes, the Villa of the Papyri, yielded to 18th-century treasure hunters numerous bronze busts and statues, including copies of earlier Greek masterpieces that are now lost. This villa's owner, obviously a wealthy and influential Roman, also kept a great library of papyrus scrolls. Many of these charred, but still legible, manuscripts were recovered. Others, however, may still remain buried in this grand villa. Toxic gases forced the early excavators to abandon the site and seal the tunnels leading to it. The villa's reopening and complete excavation, says Attilio Stazio, director of Naples' Institute of Archaeology, is perhaps Italian archaeologists' highest priority. But the project will take many years.

More immediate discoveries continue on the beach at Herculaneum. Three months after Sara Bisel's arrival I return to the site to find her well into her analysis of the skeletons—the skulls, tibias, fibulas, and other osteal remnants of twenty men, eight women, and nine children—each in its own yellow box and lined up against a wall in her laboratory. The first 12 are the so-called household in flight.

"In that chamber there were three adult males and four females," Dr. Bisel tells me. "I estimate the men were 35, 31, and 25, and the women 42, 38, 16, and 14. There were five children, but I can't tell people's sex before they reach puberty. The three-year-old was wearing gold-and-pearl earrings. The five-year-old had cavities and an abscess. There were also a nine- and a ten-year-old; the latter had an iron house key near him, along with a seven-month-old baby.

"The baby was probably upper class," she continues. "It wore jewelry and was being cradled by the 14-year-old, who I suspect was a slave. I say that because there are scars on the upper shafts of her humeri, where the pectoralis major joins the bone. That means she used those muscles for heavier work than she should have."

Dr. Bisel picks up the girl's skull. "See these grooves on her teeth? They indicate that she didn't get enough to eat when she was about 11 months old. She almost died either from illness or starvation. She was a very good-looking girl. That probably complicated her life if she was a slave."

Another seven months pass, and Dr. Bisel has now analyzed the bones of 45 adults and 10 children. "Except for the slaves, these people are very healthy," she says. "There are few signs of anemia. They had enough to eat. Many of the presumed slaves, however, appear to have been dreadfully overworked."

She rummages through the bones in yellow box number 27. "This man we call the Helmsman, because he was found next to the boat. He was about 46 and probably a slave. He did not have good treatment, good food, good anything. I don't think anyone who had any choice would look like this. A free man would stop when his body hurt as much as this man's must have.…"

"It seems safe to say this guy did not have la dolce vita," she says, while digging out a piece of the Helmsman's spine. "Six of his middle thoracic vertebrae are fused. You can see the strain put on his arms and back.…"

Next Dr. Bisel goes to a skull most dentists would like to exhibit. It belongs to the celebrated, bejeweled Ring Lady.

"The Ring Lady was special," site director Maggi had told me earlier. "The quality of her objects shows that she came from a class or family that had taste. She is really something!"

"The Ring Lady was a relatively tall, well-nourished woman of about 45," Dr. Bisel explains, skull in hand. "Her teeth had no cavities or abscesses. These people didn't use sugar. But she did have periodontal disease. Look!"

She points to numerous little pits on the bone along the Ring Lady's gum line. "This is why you floss every day."

I ask about Portia, the first skeleton Bisel had unearthed. "Portia was about 48, certainly not good-looking," she replies. "She had extreme buck teeth. Also, certain of her pelvic bones show rather unusual and unexpected changes. I do not like to make accusations across 2,000 years, but Portia's pelvic bones resemble those I once saw from a modern prostitute."

A less speculative finding is an extremely high, probably pathological, level of lead in Portia's bones.

Scholars have long debated, often furiously, whether lead poisoning could have been widespread among the Romans. Lead can cause brain damage. It has been suggested that the mad emperors Nero and Caligula suffered from lead poisoning. Now Dr. Bisel's chemical analysis of 45 skeletons shows that Portia and one other person had lead levels high enough to have certainly caused them some problems. Six more people had significantly elevated levels.

The most plausible way these people would have ingested lead is via wine. Grape juice was often boiled down in lead vessels to make the thick syrup used to sweeten some wines. Stirring the boiling syrup would have scraped lead from the pots. Thus, heavy drinkers risked heavy lead intake.

"This is the first hard evidence that the Romans may indeed have had trouble with excess lead," says Dr. Bisel. "In no way does it indicate that lead poisoning brought about the fall of the Roman Empire, but it does raise many questions that cannot yet be answered."

Unanswered questions are everywhere. They also still surround that overturned Roman boat, and during the summer of 1983 Dick Steffy's problems seem to mount with each passing day.

Most important, the boat has proved to be fragile charcoal. If excavators try simply to lift it, Steffy estimates the boat will crumble into thousands of pieces. "I've never confronted a charcoal boat before," says Steffy on the beach. "Obviously, we're going to have to invent something."

For the time being, so much of the boat remains buried that Steffy cannot tell the bow from the stern for certain. Moreover, until the craft can be lifted, its interior remains invisible. And the interior, explains Steffy, holds most of the boat's secrets.

"It won't take me five seconds to tell you what this boat was all about once I see its insides," says Steffy. "I can tell you how it was built, how it was steered, how repairs were made, where the mast was, whether the sail was square, and probably what it was used for. Right now I'd guess we have a harbor tug or a local wine carrier."

From its exterior alone, however, the Herculaneum boat is proving important.

"It's longer than I thought at first," says Steffy. "I'm calling it a 30-footer. It has a beautiful, sweeping hull, with much painstaking carving. The workmanship is on a par with the Greeks', and their shipbuilders were as meticulous as cabinetmakers. I didn't expect to find that in the Romans.…"

Both Steffy and Haraldur Sigurdsson note that the beach is littered with finished timbers. These could be part of a pier that led out from the stair that descends from the town. Sigurdsson has determined that the ancient shoreline came right up to the city walls. Herculaneum thus had the narrowest of beaches. Waves must have lapped beneath the windows of the Suburban Baths.

The vast number of timbers, however, leads Steffy to wonder whether Herculaneum could have been a shipbuilding center. If so, the money it generated could explain the town's obvious but mysterious wealth.

Many of these timbers are aligned, as if driven by a great wave that roared around the corner of the bathhouse. Sigurdsson believes that not only the timbers but perhaps the boat as well were swept down from an unexcavated site not far away, possibly a shipyard.

Herculaneum, Sigurdsson notes, was built on a promontory, a tongue of land formed by a prehistoric eruption of Vesuvius. Small rivers flowed to the bay on both sides of the town. These river mouths could have served as small harbors.…

Could the boat have been trying to evacuate fearful residents? Sigurdsson's work now makes that doubtful. The boat and its so-called Helmsman lie in different layers of the glowing avalanches that swept the town. So the Helmsman clearly was not in the boat when he died. The boat was deposited—perhaps from an adjacent shipyard—anywhere from moments to minutes after the Helmsman died from the first lethal surge.

We can thus only speculate now who this insignificant, overworked man we call the Helmsman really was. We can, however, do much more than guess about how he and his fellow townspeople died. By the time Haraldur Sigurdsson leaves Italy, his weeks of stratigraphic sampling on the slopes of Vesuvius will have created a detailed geologic post mortem.

In Herculaneum, Sigurdsson has found only a dusting of the early ash and pumice that barraged Pompeii. Being upwind from the mountain, Herculaneum was spared that first assault, even though it was in fact much closer to Vesuvius's summit. Nevertheless, earthquakes and fireworks from this volcano, whose crater lay a mere seven kilometers (four miles) away, must have alarmed Herculaneum's population. No vessels have been found in the boat chambers where the people took refuge, suggesting that at least some residents had fled by sea.

Examining exposed strata at quarries above Pompeii, Sigurdsson has found evidence that three major glowing avalanches roared down Vesuvius's slopes before one finally reached into Pompeii. Herculaneum was within their range, and thus it died seven hours before Pompeii.

Pompeii was hit, Sigurdsson says, in early morning on August 25. So Herculaneum was buried in the middle of the previous night. That explains why a lamp was found with the household in flight.

As a glowing avalanche descends a mountain, gravity segregates it into two phases that Sigurdsson terms "surges" and "flows." Both phases, which scientists have described well only in the past decade, leave distinctive stratigraphic fingerprints.

The surge strikes first. This turbulent, ash-charged torrent forms a high, billowing cloud as it steams down the slope at speeds of 100 to 300 kilometers an hour and temperatures of 100° Celsius (212°F) or higher. Composed of air along with ash and the finer debris, the surge is made almost frothy by convection.

The denser, ground-hugging flow follows the surge, bearing the larger rock fragments and pumice both made fluid by temperatures as high as 400°C. Like a glowing river, the flow follows topographical features, such as streambeds, at slower speeds of 20 to 50 kilometers an hour.

Sigurdsson suspects that during the night the residents of Herculaneum may have been alarmed, like those at Pompeii, by several small glowing avalanches that did not quite reach the town.

"Seeing fiery tongues cascading down the mountainside would have gotten the people running to the edge of town," he says. "But I don't think they were in the streets long. One skeleton the early excavators found in the town was a baby in a crib. Another appeared to be a sickly, bedbound child. If the parents had had much time, these children would not have been abandoned."

The first surge to roll over Herculaneum would have killed everyone. As autopsies of surge victims at Mount St. Helens indicate, this dense ash cloud was the most lethal agent. It would have blasted down like a blinding sand storm, flattening people and forcing them to hold their breath to keep ash-saturated air from their lungs. The heat of the surge may not have been high enough to kill, but once the people had to gasp for air, ash would have formed plugs in their windpipes, suffocating them. Other victims could have died as they were thrown down to the beach or struck by flying debris.

No more than minutes after the first surge struck, the dense superhot flow hit the town. This first flow apparently was diverted around many upper parts of the city, but swept onto the beach just below the Suburban Baths. It was what washed the boat into its resting-place beside the Helmsman. Its intense heat charred whatever limbs stuck above the surge layer and turned the boat to charcoal.

Other surges and flows over the next few hours finished the burial of Herculaneum. In all, Sigurdsson finds that Vesuvius produced at least six glowing avalanches. The last one, he suspects, was the volcano's grand finale. It became the mammoth, sun-extinguishing black cloud that raced across the bay, leading Pliny the Younger, his mother, and other terrified residents of Misenum, 32 kilometers away, to suspect the world was ending.

Vesuvius has since erupted often, but seldom with such devastating glowing avalanches. Typically, it throws out spectacular but rarely lethal lava flows. Glowing avalanches, however, did accompany an almost unknown eruption in 472. They struck again in 1631, killing at least 4,000 people. Scientists feel confident that another Plinian eruption will occur in the coming centuries.

"Vesuvius certainly ended a cycle with its last eruption in 1944," says geologist Pio Di Girolamo of the Institute of Mineralogy in Naples. "Now it is in its longest interval of repose in modern history. It's impossible to forecast the next eruption. We do not think it will be soon."

It is late September 1983 and my last day in Naples. Excavation at Herculaneum has slowed. For months site director Maggi has worried that the pathetic scenes uncovered in the chambers will be forever lost if the skeletons are even temporarily removed for cleaning and preservation. Although the chamber with the household in flight has been cleared and many beach skeletons exhumed for Bisel, Maggi has resisted full excavation of the remaining chambers while he tests a chemical spray that he hopes will fix the bones in situ. It has failed. Skeletons in the unopened chambers, however, still lie safe from the destructive atmosphere.

Also, the government of Italy has just changed, and new political forces are being exerted at Herculaneum. A new archaeologist is in charge of the boat, and its excavation has been delayed into 1984. Although the archaeological program and its funding at Herculaneum is proceeding, it awaits a more certain future.

On this last day I have walked through bumptious Neapolitan streets to the National Archaeological Museum, which houses most of the art treasures recovered from the buried cities of Vesuvius. It offers unequaled glimpses into Roman times.

The museum's voluptuous statues of Venus, Apollo, and Hercules, which must have towered over the citizenry in public places, in many ways speak more of ancient Romans than do those skeletons. Herculaneum and Pompeii lived with these gods and goddesses, and their images personify Roman concepts of physical beauty, strength, wisdom, libido, and pleasure.

I especially admire the equestrian statues of proconsul Marcus Nonius Balbus that must have dominated Herculaneum's basilica. The head of one has been lost and replaced with a likeness of his father. These aristocrats were the city's foremost citizens.

The younger Balbus, with his strong and youthful build and Apollonian face and bearing, is the idealized Roman youth. His father's face across the hall shows the same regally handsome features, except lines of age and the beginnings of jowls speak of the passage of generations, the connections between family, and the ultimate erosion of time. It is through these statues and the surrounding art that I can reach these people and identify with them as inhabitants of the same planet.

Upstairs hang the wall paintings and mosaics that reveal many of the moments that created the texture of life on the flanks of Vesuvius. A teacher disciplines a student with a beating, a rough-cut man and his wife sit for a portrait, two men and a boy receive a dole of bread, a couple drinking wine recline erotically on a couch, a tragic actor sits exhausted after a performance.

The actor takes my thoughts back to Herculaneum's buried theater, and for a moment I sense the thrill that must have greeted those early excavators. Imagine such vivid images emerging as you are scraping in the dark deep underground!

Did the excavators, I wonder, notice the eyes in these paintings, busts, and statues? So many stare vacantly ahead. They remind me of that impassive face imprinted in the pyroclastic flow in the theater. These faces do not express much joy. Often they seem to be asking whatever gods are listening why there must be such sorrow in the world. From those eyes flows a sadness that sums up the fate of this "loveliest region of the earth," that makes me want to say, "Alas poor Portia, alas Pompeii, alas Herculaneum."

Source: Gore, Rick. “The Dead Do Tell Tales at Vesuvius.” National Geographic, May 1984.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jeff said...

its grate that there is a site that has the full article hear. it is a vary interesting read.

9:27 PM  
Blogger matsulori said...

I found this a touching and fascinating read. The writer makes you walk with the inhabitants of Herculaneum, and die with them, too.

9:46 AM  

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