The provocative past

14th June 2013 at 01:00
Sexual imagery abounded in the ancient world, and explaining explicit artefacts to children can be problematic. At a British Museum exhibition about Pompeii and Herculaneum, Jerome Monahan discovers how teachers deal with difficult subjects such as sex and death

Teaching young children about ancient Greeks and Romans can be tricky to the point of impossible. And as thousands of England's teachers are finding out this summer, this is not just down to the cliche of fusty books and declining Latin verbs. In fact, one of the main problems is explicit imagery.

Take, for example, the notion of the Golden Age, a period of happiness and abundance for the human race that features widely in any study of ancient Greece. The problem is that many visual interpretations of this idea - not least Lucas Cranach the Elder's famous c.1530 painting - are full of idealised naked young men and women engaged in all sorts of pastimes: swimming, chatting, dancing and coexisting with the local wildlife.

Much worse is in store, however, for anxious teachers who take their classes to the extraordinary Life and death: Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum in London. As a showcase for more than 250 objects, a fair number of which are startlingly sexual or violent, or portray the death agonies of people killed when Vesuvius erupted in AD79 captured in plaster or resin, the exhibition is a minefield for the thousands of primary-aged children (11 and under) and secondary students (aged 11-18) who are likely to visit before it closes at the end of September. Indeed, the next few weeks - as England's education system enters school trip season - will see this reach a peak.

"Teachers must know that this exhibition is not specifically for children," points out Richard Woff, head of schools and young audiences education at the British Museum. "It's for a broad audience, and while the advantages of coming are huge, there are inevitably some risks that children and young people visiting any gallery or museum will have incidental exposure to challenging images or artefacts."

Not that the British Museum fails in its duty. Warnings abound about the depiction of the dead and the exhibition's sexual content, especially the endless decorative phalli on everything from oil lamps to wind chimes and a sculpture unearthed from the garden of a 1st-century BC villa in Herculaneum depicting the god Pan having explicit yet quite tender missionary-position sex with a goat (pictured right).

A lewd joke?

"In the end, teachers have to do their homework," says Anna Rapp, Latin teacher at Addey and Stanhope School in Lewisham, South London. "But when I saw the sculpture of Pan with the goat it came as a surprise. I don't think any of my group (of 15- to 16-year-olds) paid it much attention. But if students had brought it up, it would be an opportunity to discuss Pan as a mythological character, and the fact that the sculpture was probably a joke and how humour is culturally determined."

"The Pan sculpture is not a deliberate part of any tour on offer to schools," explains Paul Roberts, senior curator of the British Museum's Roman collections and curator of the Pompeii exhibition. "Then again, it is one of the objects in the show that most reminds us of the distance between us and the Romans and how very differently they saw and categorised things." It was found at the Villa of the Papyri, among sculptures of great leaders and philosophers, athletes and more dignified depictions of the gods.

Interestingly, Steven Hunt, course coordinator of teacher training in Classics at the University of Cambridge, argues that while the Pan sculpture is likely to be far more of a challenge to secondary students it also provides a significant opportunity for a teacher who feels they know their class well enough to engage with their mature curiosity.

"It has caused an enormous fuss, but it would be a shame to dismiss it as a piece of pornography," he says. "Its original impact is unknown. Perhaps it was a big joke - a dig at the spectator's voyeurism, or even a satiric comment on human beings' own animalistic urges. Then again, Pan was the god of the countryside and so his presence in a garden was entirely appropriate."

Roberts, similarly, finds this artefact fascinating, and it was one of the first he requested from the Archaeological Superintendency of Naples and Pompeii when planning for the exhibition started more than four years ago.

"The Roman home contains boundaries that are quite porous, such as rooms decorated with plants and animals that anticipate the actual gardens they are adjacent to," he says. "So perhaps inviting Pan in was a way of accommodating the forces of nature or even suggesting some supremacy as a civilised Roman citizen over the kind of brute passions the god has clearly surrendered himself to."

Such subtleties will be lost on very young children, and hopefully it will make little sense to them. "I suppose the chance a child might see such a thing could be problematic, but there's a big difference between their glancing at it and it being drawn explicitly to their attention," says Sandra Appleby, deputy headteacher of Warwick Primary School in Wellingborough, England. "I can imagine that sculpture might be very difficult for children from faith schools."

This view chimes with that of Donna Winckel, a teacher at Holy Trinity Catholic Primary School in Poplar, East London, who took her 7- to 8-year-old students around the exhibition. "Such an item is beyond the point of explaining," she says. "Fortunately, it was in a corner room and it was easy enough avoiding it."

Equally problematic are the numerous phalli that adorn a variety of objects in the show. During a "Living in the shadow of Vesuvius" event for children aged 7-11, I witnessed one small boy who had been tasked to think about storage jars growing more and more fascinated by an extraordinary bronze, phallic wind chime. "What's that?" he finally demanded of an actress playing a bar owner, who with great verbal dexterity immediately responded, "Oh, bells - those are lucky charms, they bring good fortune to the business." Partial it may have been as an explanation but it seemed to satisfy the child.

According to renowned Cambridge academic Mary Beard, such objects - which are everywhere in Pompeii - may have been magical symbols used to dilute the impact of "the evil eye" that could be cast enviously upon one's family or possessions. Meanwhile, Roberts is convinced that they had talismanic properties: "They probably meant different things in different contexts. There are even phallus motifs on tiny rings that can only have been worn by children - again something that's bizarre to our eyes."

Morbid mementos

The endless conveyor belt of phalli is not the only problem for teachers who are trying to illuminate the lives of the ancients. At the British Museum, for example, there is also the awkward subject of the dead. When ash rained down on Pompeii it covered the victims and preserved their shape even as their flesh and bones decayed. This allowed archaeologists to create models from the voids left behind.

Most of the figures at the exhibition are copies of original plaster casts, but even more haunting is a model of a woman found in the small settlement of Oplontis near Pompeii, whose shape was preserved using epoxy resin in 1984.

"Our students seemed to react most to the images of death, particularly to the poignant dead family at the end of the exhibition," says Wendy Smith, head of Classics at the Henrietta Barnett School in Hampstead, North London. "I reminded them that in seeing a scene like this we often think of our own mortality and it was a point at which to be very respectful.

"I aimed to get to this part of the exhibition before any of the students did, so that if any did become distressed, I was there. But the tissues I had brought with me were not needed."

Certainly, the plaster and resin casts of the dead made a strong impression on 14-year-old Sam Taylor from Addey and Stanhope School: "It was emotionally shocking and final seeing people in the positions they were in at the moment of their deaths. They can resemble posed sculptures, but then you remember these were real people at their moment of agony. But the great thing about the show is that it does not focus on their deaths but also on the lives they led before the eruption buried them."

This emphasis on life in Pompeii and Herculaneum is certainly a counterpoint to the death, but everything in this show is suffused with a poignancy that can spring an emotional surprise.

"A number of the girls were very affected by the carbonised cradle in the 'cubiculum' or 'bedroom' part of the exhibition," recalls Dr Emmanuela Zanda, Latin and Classics teacher at Stockport Grammar School. "Despite the 2,000 years that have passed since it was last used, its design is utterly familiar and the girls said they could just imagine the child in it as the disaster struck."

Jerome Monahan is a teacher and freelance writer and journalist. He provides teacher training and student-enrichment workshops in UK schools and internationally. Email


The British Museum is to follow the adult premiere of Pompeii Live from the British Museum at 7pm on 18 June with a live 60-minute transmission for schoolchildren across the UK at 11am on 19 June. Teachers and students all over the UK will have the opportunity to visit a local cinema for a fun, interactive show that involves CBBC presenters Naomi Wilkinson and Ed Petrie taking part in the live broadcast.


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