Pompeii: The Exhibition

Pompeii: The Exhibition 
By Damien Martin

It’s a beautiful day out, and you’re going about your normal business. Sure, you’ve felt a few tremors, but those are so commonplace you don’t think much of them anymore. You have no idea that by the end of the day, your city will be completely destroyed and just about everyone you know will be dead.

    That’s what happened for the citizens of Pompeii on August 24, A.D. 79. The prosperous port town south of Naples was wiped out when Mt. Vesuvius erupted that afternoon, spewing flames and ash as high as 20 miles in the air. The heat alone was enough to kill people instantly. Over the next few days, enough pumice and ash had fallen to bury the city under several yards of debris. Within a few years, people had forgotten where the city used to stand.

    When unearthed in the 1740s, the preserved faces of the victims told excavators without words the horror and anguish of the catastrophic event. While devastating for the inhabitants, in a quirk of history, the eruption was a gift to future generations, crystallizing a Roman city during the Pax Romana, the Roman Empire’s most peaceful and prosperous period. The artifacts, graffiti and buildings left behind intact provide much of our understanding of what life was like for normal, everyday people in empire two millennia ago.

    Pompeii: The Exhibition is winding down a six-month run at Kansas City’s Union Station. I caught it last weekend before the opportunity passed by. It features statues, mosaics, household items and decorations from the archaeological site. Most striking of course is the plaster casts of people who unsuccessfully tried to flee or hide from the destruction raining down upon them, parents clinging to their children and a man who tried to cover his face with a cloak to stave off the debris.

    Equally interesting, though, is how sophisticated and modern the society was in a lot of respects. Blown glass drinking vessels look like souvenirs you might bring home now. Fountain sculptures look like they’d work if you installed them in your backyard tomorrow. Colanders look primed for draining that big pot of pasta you just cooked. Our sports may be some degrees of violence removed from the gladiators of the arena, but the hero worship of them isn’t much different. You could easily picture their helmets on display next to a plaque or trophy in some sort of hall of fame. People could belly up to the bar at the local lunch counter or take their meal to go if they had to rush on to business in the forum. Sure, garum, the condiment made of fish guts and salt that Romans put on just about everything might not please the modern palate, but what will people say of ketchup in a couple thousand years?

    Not everything is similar to today’s world. Modern brothel art is light years behind Pompeii, for example. But it’s a fascinating tangible connection to history that can seem so far removed from modern life as to be almost fantastic. The traveling exhibit may be closing, but I’m already thinking about a trip to discover the open-air time capsule that is Pompeii in person.

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