The Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition was a blockbuster when it opened at the British Museum in the summer of 2013. Now Pompeii Live (britishmuseum.org/pompeii-live) offers a private view of this wonderful show.
Now streaming online, its viewers can travel to southern Italy close to 2000 years ago to meet the men and women who lived in these two small towns, and learn the terrible story of how they died in the cataclysmic eruption of Mt Vesuvius in AD79.
The hosts are some of the world’s greatest Roman scholars, including the passionate Mary Beard, professor of Classics at Cambridge University, and a favourite of British history television, and they bring the story to life through the extraordinary objects that were left behind – paintings, jewellery, and even the contents of the sewers.
The exhibition was five years in the making, and this film takes a look behind the scenes of just what goes into pulling together a project like this – the directors, researchers and crew who co-ordinated the movement of priceless objects across Europe.
The exhibition attempts to recreate the private and public lives of the people who lived in Pompeii – the thriving town just south of Naples – and the lesser-known Herculaneum – a smaller seaside town to the west.
The objects themselves are jaw-dropping. Some, such as the cast of a domestic dog, who died chained, his body convulsed from breathing in the deadly gases that descended on the town, are very powerful. Others, such as entire families buried together, are heartbreaking.
These were perfectly ordinary towns – with rich and poor, bartenders and bakers, slaves and sex workers. You can explore the plumbing, the gardens and the morning routines, the diets, the pubs and the contents of the drains. As Beard points out, if they hadn’t been buried by Vesuvius, we would never have heard of them. Most Romans living in Rome at the time would never have heard of them. But it’s their normality that makes them so interesting.
The people knew that Vesuvius was a volcano, but it was long presumed to be no longer active. Several years before, an earthquake had been recorded to have shaken the towns – we now know these tremors were the result of volcanic activity. So when tremors began that fateful day, few would have suspected that the mountain was coming to life.
Those tremors developed into a series of short, sharp explosions, and then a mass of volcanic material was thrown into the sky. We know that as it exploded, the screams and prayers of men and women could be heard – the sound was recorded by Pliny the Younger who witnessed it from across the bay.
It took just 12 hours for Pompeii and Herculaneum to disappear. When the ash cloud collapsed, the towns were hit by an avalanche of ash and molten rock. They lay buried for 1500 years.
Many escaped. But of those who stayed, hoping they would be safe in their homes, not one survived. The details of their deaths are treated with respect and, even 2000 years later, are still shocking and haunting.
To watch, visit Pompeii Live from the British Museum.