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The most famous city ever buried in volcanic ash is the subject of a new exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center

For some of its denizens, Pompeii in early 79 AD was a great place to live: The wealthy owned marble statuary, had state-of-the-art central heating, and dined sumptuously off the fat of the land. On the other hand, most residents of this busy Roman port town of 25,000 were poor and had it rather worse.

But for all residents, rich and poor alike, one day Pompeii was there, and the next it was gone. A nationally touring show produced by World Heritage exhibitions opening at the Carnegie Science Center this week provides memorable before-and-after pictures of life and death in the world’s most famous city to ever be buried in volcanic ash.

Aphrodite statue from Pompeii
World Heritage Exhibitions
A marble statue of Aphrodite from Pompeii

“Pompeii: The Exhibition” offers some 180 artifacts from the archaeological site in southern Italy, which lay untouched for centuries until its rediscovery, in 1740. The site is still only partially excavated.

The items in the show stretch through several rooms, displaying artifacts ranging from the workaday, like fish hooks and a bronze skillet, to the rather ostentatious, like a life-sized marble sculpture of the goddess Aphrodite. There’s a table-top terra cotta coin bank, and the bronze armor gladiators who fought in the local amphitheater wore. Displays explain the Bronze Age technology that enabled those central-heating systems and describe a street-oriented takeout-food culture that seems surprisingly familiar to modern-day urbanites.

And then there are the bodies: plaster casts memorializing six of the at least 2,000 Pompeiians who died when Mount Vesuvius unexpectedly blew that day. Many victims were buried in ash that hardened and left a human-shaped cavity when their bodies decomposed. Plaster of paris restored them to solidity, and it’s a moving sight. One cast depicts the sprawled body of a young child, another the figure of a man seated on the ground, heels to thighs, hands to his face, apparently in the fruitless act of using his garment to shield his head from the volcano’s fallout.

The contorted form of a household guard dog rounds out the collection of body casts.

The exhibit also includes a multimedia display recreating the eruption’s impact on Pompeii, with digital animation on a big screen paired with seismically rumbling floor and billows of smoke.

For adults only – a rarity at the Science Center – the exhibit features a separate section that evokes a brothel in Pompeii, with erotic paintings and statuary, and a discreet animated video that emphasizes the tragic plight of the 20 young sex workers kept there.

“Pompeii: The Exhibition” follows tradition in dating the eruption to Aug. 24 and 25, though some modern scholarship suggests it actually happened in October.

Jason Simmons, an executive vice president of World Heritage, which is based in Rocky River, Ohio, said some of the people who died in Pompeii couldn’t leave because they were ill. One body cast made from remains found at the Roman port town, but is not featured in this show, was of a pregnant woman. But others who perished there were there by choice, he said.

“Some people went back for their valuables or thought they could ride it out. Or some people were worried about people taking their valuables, and wanted to stay and protect it,” said Simmons, speaking at a press preview at the Science Center. “The same things and reasons people stay in their homes today during natural disasters.”

The exhibit features some items never before seen in the U.S., including certain mosaics and some of the gladiatorial gear, said World Heritage executive vice president Troy Collins.

But only about half of the exhibit confronts the horror of the volcanic blast and its aftermath. The rest paints Pompeii as a complex, flawed society – one that countenanced great disparities of wealth and even a form of slavery. But it was also a society where people got takeout, lit lamps, went to the theater, watched sports, saved coins, and wore jewelry.

“I think that’s an important message, that people have been doing roughly the same kind of things roughly forever,” said Collins. At “Pompeii: The Exhibition,” audiences “get to reach across time and get to look at and understand what people were like 2,000 years ago.”

The exhibit opens Sat., Oct. 2, and runs through April 23. More information is here.

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Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: bodriscoll@wesa.fm
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