…oh, and some place called Herculaneum.

portrait_pompeii_304x331_pressA smidgen under 2,000 years ago, a volcano erupted in Italy and within a day had immortalized the local residents in history. Two towns, of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried under the volcanic fury and lay there virtually untouched until the 1750s.

Now some of their preserved artefacts have come to London in the latest of the British Museum’s summer blockbuster exhibitions.

Entry to the exhibition is heralded by a display that shows the contrasting aspects of the sites – two very domestic objects of a table and a wall painting — and the contorted remains of a dog that had died in fiery agonies when the eruption reached its climatic conclusion.

The bulk of the exhibition though has been laid out into rooms that roughly mirror those of a typical house of the time – this time named the House of the Tragic Poet. Whether there was a poet, tragic or otherwise is left somewhat ambiguous.

People watching repeats of  I, Claudius on BBC at the moment might tremble at the sight of a statue of the Empress Livia around the corner. People more attuned to watching Dr Who might pass by desperately trying not to blink.

Political sorts might smile at the remains of a campaign poster that captured the elections taking place just before the volcano rendered such issues irrelevant.

Small bottles contained Garum, which is not at all like the spice Garam Masala — being instead a type of fermented sauce made from rotted fishes. The sign of the Phoenix Tavern is adorned with the comment “Phoenix Felix Et Tu”, which is to wish good luck upon their visitors, and is an idea that really should be restored by their British descendants.

A side room, indicating a Roman bedroom has some wooden artefacts from Herculaneum, including a clothing chest of charred wood that was “accidentally” broken into. How do you accidentally break open a wooden chest?

There are no wooden remains from Pompeii — although the two towns were destroyed by the same eruption, by a chance of considerable good fortune for later historians, if not the residents of the time — both were destroyed in different ways. And hence, were preserved differently.

Herculaneum was mainly covered in rubble and pumice that later compressed down into solid rock, while Pompeii was covered in soft ash. Also, the devastating pyroclastic flows that so famously froze the deaths in a single moment in time were also different — so that there were few bodies found in Herculaneum, but lots of ghostly echos concealed within Pompeii.

Within the bedroom you may observe an oil lamp with a most extraordinary phallus, yet it is another room further along that has a small sign on the side warning of sexually explicit objects within.

Here is the notorious image of Pan preserved in flagrante delicto with a goat. An image that shocked and horrified when uncovered in 1752, it was for many years only visible with Royal permission, and then later locked into a room that again could only be seen with permission of the museum manager. Only put on public display in 2000, it still has the power to shock, or enthral.

I suspect that the statue is shocking even to those familiar with the sexual representations of ancient times in that it is such a physically active statue rather than the artistically flat paintings, or the disembodied phallus that are more usually seen as totems.

Other rooms are filled with mosaics and paintings on plaster. The representation of the animals of the sea looks almost Victorian in style – even if 1700 years before the Victorians took such a detailed interest in representations of animal life.

On the topic of food, do look out for the dormouse fattening jar. Dormice were delicacies, and stuffed, and coated in honey and baked. Maybe some enterprising chef could make similar use of the London Underground’s mice?

While in the kitchen area pay attention to the Mortar and Pestle – and specifically the pestle, which is in the shape of a finger rather than a blunt club shaped grinder.


The house people lived in seen, it is time to be reminded of their deaths.

This is possibly one of the more uncomfortable sights — even for visitors used to seeing the remains of the ancient dead.

These are not people laid out respectfully in graves and later carefully excavated — these are a moment captured at the very instant of a painful and terrifying death. Adding to the macabre sensation is that these contorted “stones” are not even the bodies themselves.

When the bodies, blasted by the super-heated volcanic gasses were covered by the ash, as the ash hardened, the bodies slowly rotted away leaving ghostly voids within the now solid ash surrounding them. Later filled with plaster — or in one case, resin — by archaeologists, the ghosts have been torn away from their untimely rest and put hauntingly on display.

They are not pristine representations as the echos within the ashen graves would not have been perfect, but in turn those imperfections only seem to magnify the horror of their deaths as you imagine how the searing heat must have twisted and deformed their skin before it was wrapped in its ashen shroud.

It’s a sombre way to finish the exhibition, as you leave – and enter glaringly into the gift shop.

The exhibition is open from this Thursday until the end of September and entry for most people is £15.

For the first time, jobseekers can gain entry for a single pound coin on Monday afternoons.

Annoyingly – photography wasn’t allowed.


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  1. Barbara Low says:

    sounds fascinating, look forward to visiting this exhibition.

  2. Sheila Page says:

    What do you mean, ‘annoyingly–photography wasn’t allowed’? I would have written ‘fortunately people who can’t be bothered to look at the exhibits with their eyes are not allowed to get in the way’. Particularly in what, I assume, is a crowded space, the last thing you want is photography.

    • IanVisits says:

      My visit was during a press-only event, where it is not unusual to have film crews and professional photographers doing their jobs — and I find that it helps to be able to take photos of the caption texts as an aide-mémoire later on, and of the exhibition rooms illustrate articles I later write.

      There were a few media images offered, but none of them were of the exhibition space itself, which is the sort of photography I use to convey the overall atmosphere of the venue.

      In fact one of the main reasons why I go to press previews is because it is often the only chance to take photos of the exhibition space for use in an article I might write.

  3. Harry Truman says:

    1. Photography is allowed at Pompeii

    2. Photography is allowed at the National Museum in Naples

    3. Photography is allowed in the British Museum

    But strangely, when 1 & 2 are nestled in 3, suddenly there’s ‘No Photography’.

    It’s not like the 2000-year old objects are under copyright. Nor does non-flash photography harm anything. And it’s nice to have some pictures long afterwards when the memory fades. Even the curators don’t know why the British Museum has this policy for exhibitions. Plenty of people take sneaky shots on their smartphones anyway.

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