Review - When disaster struck

8th February 2013 at 00:00
An exhibition unearths relics of ordinary life in Roman Pompeii

For the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum - two Roman cities in the Bay of Naples, southern Italy - 24 August AD79 started out as just another day. Bread was baking in the ovens, slaves were working in the fields and people were relaxing in the public baths.

Soon, however, the two cities would be wiped out, buried in the ash of Mount Vesuvius' terrifyingly fierce eruption.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, a new exhibition coming to the British Museum in London, displays more than 250 objects from the two cities - many of which have never been seen outside Italy - and focuses on the daily lives of the doomed inhabitants.

"Daily life, the home and domestic life - it's something that we all share," curator Paul Roberts says. "The home gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore how people like us lived."

Most people know the story of Pompeii and its remarkable preservation. But it is still incredible to see some of the artefacts that have survived, such as a wall painting of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife, holding writing materials, in a pose that suggests they were partners in business as well as in life.

Others are powerfully poignant: a baby's crib and a linen chest. Victims of the eruption - including a dog - are frozen in the poses they adopted as death approached. It is easy to think of the people who died simply as historical figures but natural disasters happen around the world every year. What would your pupils do if they found themselves in such a situation? Who would they help? What might they try to save?

"We can't imagine the horror of the day but we can see what people did," Roberts says. "Some of them were practical, taking a lantern or 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. There are pieces from all over the Roman world and beyond.

"People had to die at Pompeii and Herculaneum for us to know so much about them. But it's their lives that we will be celebrating in this exhibition."

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum will run from 28 March to 29 September at the British Museum, London.

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