You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men… People bewailed their own fate… and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore… I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, but I admit that I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it.
– Pliny the Younger
It’s a strange feeling walking around the streets of a city that was literally buried in time. Pompeii was lost in 79 AD, and it lay preserved underground until it was rediscovered hundreds of years later. Nothing had changed; time had just stopped.
Due to the 4+ metre layer of ash, the city is almost perfectly preserved. You can wander around the ancient city on the very streets that the people used to try and escape. You can explore their houses, their temples, their bakeries, and their public spaces. You can discover how they lived, right up until their last moments. You can walk in their final footsteps.
And the really eerie thing is, they literally were their final moments. The plaster casts of people and animals as they lay dying take on a whole new meaning when you see them in their context rather than in a museum. The contorted postures reveal just how unbearable the heat and suffocation must have been. It’s a very strange thing looking at someone as they died in perhaps the most horrific way imaginable.
We can only imagine how horrific it must have been for them. They lived in a completely different world. Volcanoes only erupt like this once every thousands of years. It was certainly something the likes of which had never been seen by anyone remotely close to their generation. As terrifying as the situation would be today, it must have been a hundred times worse for them because they had no idea what was happening, Their whole world was ending.
Looking up from the ruins you see a looming reminder of the events of 79 AD in Mount Vesuvius. Despite there being not a cloud in the sky, an eerie shadow remained over the mountain all day. There was a point where I was looking at the volcano from the remnants of the forum and I realised that I was looking at the very same entity that they had been observing, in entirely different circumstances.
Pompeii has been on my bucket-list for a long time – well before I studied it as part of my archaeology major. It’s always held a certain fascination for me, purely for the fact that it literally disappeared overnight. Everything that defined the city – buildings, arenas, forums, people – was buried along with it, frozen in time only to be discovered hundreds of years later. It’s one of very few places in the world where the past has remained untouched by subsequent developments and cultures.
The fact that the site has become a major tourist destination is both good and bad. I think that history plays such an important part in crafting who we are as a society that people should be interested and want to learn about the cultures that preceded them. I think it’s amazing that we all share this fascination about the city that was buried alive.
However, hoards of tourists meandering through the ruins every year means that conservation is impossible. The city is falling apart. The respect for the site and for its people is, for the most part, non-existent. It’s a tough debate, but maybe there comes a time when, after we’ve discovered all there is to discover, we should rebury these sites and leave them as we found them. Maybe there comes a time when we should let the city and its inhabitants rest in peace.