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Spend a Day in Pompeii

Visitors are fascinated by the detail captured in the casts made of corpses from the Pompeii tragedy.

Visitors are fascinated by the detail captured in the casts made of corpses from the Pompeii tragedy.

photo courtesy of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science

So it stands to reason that we are still fascinated with the destruction of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which was destroyed after Mount Vesuvius erupted on Aug. 24 of AD 79. The horrific remains show encapsulated bodies, sometimes frozen in motion, along with the usual urns and implements of the era. The event killed more than a thousand people, but also preserved a moment in time.
But you don’t have to travel to Italy to see the amazing remains and hear the frightful story. It’s now an exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science – “A Day in Pompeii” – that will remain on display through Jan. 13.

Buried under ash for centuries, Pompeii was rediscovered by archeologists in the early 1700s. Little by little, they uncovered the streets, buildings, bodies and artifacts that made up the city’s daily life. Like mudslides have preserved the bones of dinosaurs, the ash from the volcano created an impervious coating over the city.

The 250 artifacts in the exhibit range from such tiny items as coins, fish hooks and jewelry to military gear and statues. Household items, such as everyday and fancy dinnerware, even fabrics and glass items, were preserved in the ash.

Several short films depict the daily life and ultimate destruction of the port city. There are 10 resin casts created from molds made of human and animal victims, caught during their last moment of life. And although 1,000-2,000 died (depending on whose estimate you accept), we’re reminded that 90 percent escaped with their lives, taking heed of the rumblings of Mount Vesuvius.

The exhibit includes some interactive elements, called touch carts, whereby visitors will learn about the geology of volcanoes in “Ash Me About Volcanoes,” or where you answer some questions on an iPad to find out which Roman god you might be like. At one point, you can try on a toga (they’ll show you how). Also, the museum has hired seven actors to portray characters from the era, from a slave girl to a haughty householder.

The exhibit, which returns to Italy once it leaves Denver, was augmented by the Denver museum staff with these touch carts and the performers.

“We recognize that not everyone learns the same way,” says Steve Nash, curator of archeology for the museum. “Some people will do fine reading the information, but others do better talking to someone or touching something.”

The amazing thing about Pompeii is that it is “a time capsule sealed inside volcanic ash.” The very forces that destroyed it also preserved the remains for us to see, says Nash.
Because Greek and Roman architecture and other cultural aspects have survived to today, he says that the exhibit will seem “different, yet strangely familiar to us.”

For example, there’s a piece of plumbing that fascinates him. It’s a lead junction box that controlled and diverted the flow of water to three different rooms in a house. “A plumber today would recognize it for what it is,” Nash says.

His favorite piece in the exhibit might well be the “monstrous, beautiful fresco” at the entrance, which features some Egyptian elements.

“It shows that these people were sophisticated and culturally aware,” he says.

The other thing he finds special about the exhibit is that it represents the spectrum of life in Pompeii. “It’s not King Tut’s tomb, where only one way of life is captured. This exhibit shows everyday life in a real city.”