Monday, 23 June 2014

Days 455 and Day 457: Pompeii and Herculaneum

This is not a nice mountain.

This is Vesuvius, and it's a volcano as well as a mountain, and in 79 AD it behaved like a bit of a dick. It did exactly the kind of thing you don't want your local mountain to do and exploded with the force of 100,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs and killed thousands of people. It didn't just kill the people, it buried them under ash and lava and all that stuff that comes out of volcanoes, none of which is good for living creatures. It was all bad news for the Romans, but many hundreds of years later it was good news for the people who are interested in Romans, because it preserved the towns and people.

This is Pompeii, the most famous of all the towns buried by Vesuvius's inconsiderate eruption. It was rediscovered in the 18th Century, and gives us a pretty good insight into how the Romans lived. Turns out they had takeaways and temples and theatres and bathhouses and brothels and lots of nice houses. An aqueduct provided them with running water. If you had to live in 79 AD, an era without broadband internet or microwaves or even electricity, then there were a lot worse places in the world to live. As long as you didn't mind volcanic catastrophes, at least.

There's even some cock-and-balls graffiti, as our guide took great joy in showing us.

One of the things Pompeii is most famous for are the plaster casts of people in their death pose. The hot ash hit Pompeii quick, burying the town and people, and you can imagine the scenes of horror as this was about to happen. People were found huddled, or simply sleeping. In fact, the human material had long since decayed when Pompeii was excavated, what excavators found were human-shaped gaps in the ash layers. By simply injecting plaster, the void was filled. It's a macabre sight. We are seeing the filled-in human-shaped voids in the ash, of people from 79 AD in their last moments.

All this is, obviously, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Pompeii is a fabulous place just to wander around. Clearly, it's a bit ruined, but considering its age, it's not doing badly. And much of the damage has been done because of the excavation. A lot remained preserved while buried underground, but when exposed to the outside it begins to rapidly deteriorate.

Be careful taking a tour, especially if you've just got off the Naples-to-Pompeii train. I should have known better, but it seemed a good way of getting some easy insight into Pompeii (and to be fair, it did help). Ours was supposedly a reputable tour company - they had big signs right at the train stop - but they made us wait an hour before starting, and our guide was a little like an automaton, becoming animated only when penises were discussed (fortunately for her, the Romans liked their penises). But worst of all, towards the end she gave our group of around 20 people a few minutes to look around an area. Danielle and I didn't go far and took only a few minutes, but when we came back the group had gone! Our tour group abandoned us! After about half-an-hour we found them, and our automaton guide didn't even register our reappearance. So we abandoned them this time, and vowed to take the audio guide next time.

Smaller but similar to Pompeii, and better preserved, is Herculaneum. Likewise destroyed and buried by Vesuvius, it was actually rediscovered a little before Pompeii. It has some lovely mosaics and frescoes, and while it doesn't have the set pieces of the bathhouses and amphitheatre of Pompeii, has nicer details. And much fewer tourists. The connoisseur is supposed to prefer Herculaneum for these reasons, but I have to admit I preferred Pompeii. Does this make me a bad person?

Vesuvius last erupted in 1944. It last killed people - over a hundred - in 1906. The Olympics were due to have been held in Rome in 1908, but as funds had to be rediverted following the disaster, London stepped in and held the Olympics instead.

It is still active today. Around 600,000 people live in the "red zone", at direct risk from the kind of eruption that buried Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other nearby settlements. The volcano is closely monitored and evacuation plans are in place, but evacuation would still take a week - better hope Vesuvius gives plenty of notice.

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