Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum opens at the British Museum in London

By Ben Miller | 28 March 2013

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


Catastrophic for a civilisation but carbonising for the artefacts it left behind, the 5,000 degree volcanic eruption which buried Pompeii and Herculaneum, in AD 79, had a strangely preservative subplot.

Effectively scorching the ghosts of humanity beneath the Bay of Naples cities, it meant that objects from both locations – Pompeii at the industrial heart of the region, Herculaneum a small seaside town – were in incredible condition by the time archaeologists got to them almost 1,700 years later.

So working with the Archaeological Superintendency of Naples and Pompeii, the British Museum’s procurement of around 250 objects represents a retrospective of unprecedented veracity.

Paul Roberts, the curator of a display intent on shadowing the streets and corridors of everyday life in ancient Italian society, has said the exhibits “went in the oven in AD 79 and came out in the 1930s”.

“We can’t imagine the horror of that day, but we can see what people did,” he suggested, discussing the disaster.

“Some of them were practical, taking a lantern or a lamp to help them stumble through the total darkness of the volcanic blizzard.

“Other people took gold and silver in the form of coins or jewellery. One little girl took her charm bracelet with pieces from all over the Roman world and beyond.”

The home lives of businessmen and women, freed slaves and children, rather than the cinematically established calling cards of emperors, gladiators and legionaries, are the focus.

“Domestic life is something that we all share,” reasoned Roberts.

“The home gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore how people like us lived in Roman times.

“Perhaps they didn’t all go to the baths or the amphitheatre. But poor or wealthy, they all had a home.”

Equality, the museum suggests, is the surprising element to emerge from a Pompeii wall painting, where Terentius Neo, a baker, stands alongside his wife, each holding writing materials in a portrait of a literate, cultured couple with equilibrium between their business and personal power.

The casts of the fallen, though, are more poignant. Two adults and children huddle in their last moments under the entrance to their villa, and a dog, fixed under the consuming volcano, symbolises domesticity in ruins.

  • Open 10am-5.30pm (8.30pm Sunday). Admission £7.50-£15 (free for under-16s), book online. Follow the museum on Twitter @britishmuseum and use the hashtag #PompeiiExhibition.

More pictures:

a photo of a calcified dog from Pompeii
© Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum
A photo of the ruined walls of an Italian city under faint sunlight
Pompeii, Bay of Naples, Italy (2012)© Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum
A photo of an ancient mosaic showing a crouching black dog
Mosaic of a guard dog. From the House of Orpheus, Pompeii (1st century AD)© Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum
A photo of a stone carving of various ancient Italian figures facing each other in robes
Relief with Bacchus and followers, marble wall panel, From the House of the Dionysiac Reliefs, Herculaneum (1st century AD)© Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum
A photo of the stone walls and paths of an Italian city under grey skies
Herculaneum, Bay of Naples, Italy (2012)© Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum
A photo of a dark brown sculpture of an ancient Italian woman standing up in robes
Bronze statue of a woman fastening her dress. From the Villa of the Papyrii, Herculaneum (1st century BC - 1st century AD)© Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum
Latest comment: >Make a comment
a stunning exhibition - but very busy - intensely busy.
>See all comments
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
    Back to article
    Your comment:
    DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted at www.culture24.org.uk are the opinion of the comment writer, not Culture24. Culture24 reserves the right to withdraw or withhold from publication any comments that are deemed to be hearsay or potentially libellous, or make false or unsubstantiated allegations or are deemed to be spam or unrelated to the article at which they are posted.