Remembering Pompeii – And Herculaneum

By Bernie Bell

Reading of the findings produced by scientists successfully sequencing a human genome from an individual who lived in Pompeii……  reminded me of a wonderful visit I made years ago to the buried cities of  Pompeii and Herculaneum.  I had friends who were in Naples teaching English as a Foreign Language and I went to stay with them for two weeks.  From their flat I could look across the Bay of Naples to Vesuvius sitting there, quietly minding her own business, as if butter wouldn’t melt in her crater.  Then I visited Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Very close, very immediate effect.

When I visited Herculaneum I was fortunate enough to have a guide who didn’t stick to the rules and used his keys to let me into places which were usually kept locked. One place he showed me wasn’t locked, but it wasn’t on the usual tour.  He took me to where some excavations were still taking place.  I might find it hard to adequately describe this, but I’ll have a go……

There was a vertical bank of compacted earth/ash, on top of which could be seen the houses of modern-day Herculaneum. The striking thing was that, in an excavation near the base of this bank of earth, there was  the pedestal of a statue on which I could see just the lower part of a horses leg. The rest to the statue disappeared  up into the bank on top of which were the houses of today’s Herculaneum.  Picture it. I stood there, in amazement. Think of what I was seeing there – the statue was standing there when the volcano erupted and was buried by ash, then earth, on which the new town was constructed.

Then the old town was re-discovered and here I was looking at the whole story in one slice across the bank.

The houses at the front are ‘old’ Herculaneum – those above them are today’s Herculaneum

My guide was very good to me. I think he must have ‘taken to me’, as he showed me all these extra places and refused payment. The only drawback (?) was that he didn’t want me to see “Pornographico antico”. There were some buildings with sexually explicit wall-art and statues, and he wasn’t prepared to go into them with me. When we came upon a baker’s with a cock and balls in relief on the side of the oven ( to help to make the bread rise) he was mortified!  It was all a bit odd, really.  He was an official guide who would normally be given money at the end of the tour.  He gave me an exceptional tour, including the statue emerging from the earth, but did not want me to see anything rude.  He got some people to take a photo of us standing together, then wouldn’t take payment for the tour.

My memory of that visit, and him, is good. A very pleasant, ebullient man, if a little prudish!

The work on the genome of the Pompeiian individual was done on the actual bones of the man, but another relict of those people that fascinates me is  the encasements which were found in Pompeii which are the result of when the hot ash fell and formed around people, suffocating and encasing them. They are found in heaps – in postures and with gestures which are heart-rending.  I have thought….something of the person could still be in that encasement. I’m not saying there are bits of bone, or skin or whatever – just….something of the person could still be in there. The ash formed around them, and the cast hasn’t been broken since.  With recent developments in scientific investigation of DNA, genomes etc – what could  be found and revealed? Though, on the other hand, I have a feeling that they should be left as they are.  Left in peace.

My visit to Pompeii was before they were discovered, so I haven’t actually seen them. I’m not sure how I’d feel if I did come ‘face to face’ with them.

The encasements from Pompeii  reminded me of the plaster casts which artist Anthony Gormley is put into when he starts the process of making some of his figures. I saw a television programme about Mr Gormley and his work entitled  ‘Being Human’  in which his wife had covered him in plaster, then she gently slid the case away from him when it was ready.  What’s left inside the plaster cast when it’s taken from Anthony Gormley’s body? 

And then on to memories of an exhibition of photographs by Anna Charlotta Gardiner of her concrete life-cast sculptures entitled ‘Nightswimming’ which took place in ‘Northlight’ gallery in Stromness a few years ago.

Anna prepares the pieces by making life-cast models…

….which remind me strongly of Antony Gormley’s figures, and of the casts of the people from Pompeii.

Anna’s figures were then installed in the garden of her friends who live in Outertown, Stromness,  and the images of the work when first installed spoke to me of archaeology – of the people who are under the ground, waiting to be un-earthed. 

Having rambled about a bit – I’ll now present one of my favourite photos from my trip to Herculaneum – some of the houses and streets look like someone could step out of a door-way at any time – in any time.

A street in Herculaneum Old Town

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