Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum: Why is it so popular?

By Ruth Hazard | 26 April 2013

Exhibition review: Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, British Museum, London, until September 29 2013

a photo of a fireze showing a bachanalian scene
Relief with Bacchus and followers, marble wall panel, From the House of the Dionysiac Reliefs, Herculaneum (1AD)© Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum
Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is fast becoming one of the year’s must-see London shows. Tickets are selling like hotcakes and those who have neglected to book in advance are being turned away at the gate. So what exactly is the fascination with the British Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition?

Perhaps it’s because this is the first time a London venue has tackled the Vesuvius eruption in almost 40 years, or because many of the artefacts have never been shown in a display outside of Italy before. But for most, it’s the chance to see history’s real-life human victims, immortalised in ash at the moment they faced their deaths.

The traces of clothing, the faint outline of expressions, the child visibly clawing at the walls to escape; the unsettling reality of it is bound to send a shiver down your spine.

But this is not a simple rehashing of what happened in 79AD. Making a conscious decision to focus on legacy over tragedy, the display is a far more extensive exploration into the life that came before it.

While Pompeii is the volcano’s most notorious victim, just as many were killed in Herculaneum. Hit by a far hotter pyroclastic surge, its inhabitants were immediately incinerated and the city buried 24m deep in ash.

a photo of a golden snake bracelet
Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake (1AD). Roman, Pompeii© the Trustees of the British Museum
Oddly, however, the 400-degree heat carbonised organic items, perfectly preserving wooden furniture, items of jewellery and even bowls of fresh figs that had been laid out for breakfast that morning.

So rather than focusing on the ingenuity of Roman engineering or architectural design, the exhibition brims with an assortment of seemingly trivial objects that reveal far more about everyday Roman life.

With 2,500 artefacts on display, trying to see it all is a serious task. But whether you want to know how they might have decorated their homes, cooked their food, made an income or kept themselves clean, you’re likely to find the answer hidden somewhere here.

More than that, these objects reveal the art they admired, the jokes that made them laugh, the graffiti they scrawled on public walls and the charms in which they placed their hopes for good fortune.

Of course, the inevitable result of nosing your way through personal trinkets, baby cradles and chamber pots is that it makes viewing the human casts much more poignant – they are the real face to an otherwise anonymous death count.

With one third of Pompeii and two thirds of Herculaneum still to be excavated, it’s likely this won’t be the last display that looks at life in these lost cities. Judging by what there is to see here, the demand for tickets won’t be any less huge.
  • Open: 10am-5.30pm (8.30pm Friday). Admission £7.50- £15.00 (free for under-16s). Book online.

More pictures:

a fragment of a wall painitng showing a reclining Roman man using a drinking horn
Fragment of a wall painting showing a man reclining to drink. From Pompeii (1AD)© the Trustees of the British Museum
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