Sunday, 4 June 2017
Sorrento Holiday:: Day Four (Pompeii!)
I know this is a strange way to be going about telling you of my holiday adventures, with the fourth day coming after the fifth, but I think you'll understand if you just have a very quick scroll down to the bottom of this post..... it is VERY long! It has been a real dream of mine to be able to visit the ruins of Pompeii and once I was actually there, I couldn't get over my excitement and ended up taking 300 photos in the ancient city alone. So if you are going to need a cup of tea and a biscuit to sustain you halfway through, now is the time to go and get one!
For anyone who doesn't know the history of this mind-blowing place, it was a rich and vibrant, bustling vacation spot for the wealthy citizens of Rome, and the streets were full of tourists, townspeople and slaves going about their daily business. There were shops, bath houses, taverns, a theatre quarter with open air and covered theatres showing different plays, sports centres, an Ampitheatre and many exquisitely decorated villas.
In 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius, the volcano on which Pompeii was built at the bottom of, erupted and buried the city and its 20,000 inhabitants under thick layers of volcanic ash, preserving many of the people, buildings and artifacts where they stood. Looking back on it now with the hindsight of modern technology, it is apparent that the volcano was very active for quite a while before the eruption, with earth tremors damaging buildings and streets- there are many cases of buildings already being redecorated and rebuilt, the tools of the trade preserved in situ for us to uncover.
The citizens of Pompeii were accepting these tremors as part of daily life, possibly explaining it as the wrath of the Gods for various sins, and tenaciously repairing the city as bits of it fell down, not realising that it would all be in vain as worse was to come.
By the time the dense black ash cloud descended, reports from the period record the panic that befell the city, with crowds of screaming people starting to flee. Those who left early, without pausing to pack their possessions might have got away as the ash wasn't particularly lethal, but those who decided to stay indoors and weather the storm didn't stand a chance. According to the BBC website, 'it was not until around midnight that the first pyroclastic surges and flows occurred, caused by the progressive collapse of the eruptive column, and these meant certain death for the people of the region. (A pyroclastic flow is a ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments and volcanic gas, which rushed down the side of a volcano as fast as 100km/hour or more."
Another place I would love to go back and visit is Herculaneum, which is slightly further along the coast as the eruption affected them slightly differently than in Pompeii. The people there sought shelter in the vaulted boat houses along the coast, where they packed in in their hundreds believing themselves to be safe. Unfortunately it was possibly one of the worst places for them to be as they were hit with the intense heat of the first surge to hit the city, and were essentially instantly cooked alive.
For those in Pompeii, subsequent surges of heat asphyxiated anyone who had survived the metres of ash that had already fallen, and following waves caused significant damage to the upper floors of the buildings as well as coating the people in successive layers of ash where they had fallen. It is this protective blanket, along with the fact that traumatised people from other cities did not try to reclaim Pompeii or Herculaneum, that has preserved the city so well.
What fascinates me, is that the plaster is still on the walls- even the outside ones- with the colours as vivid as when they were originally painted. The scenes and murals are still identifiable scenes, and the floors have every single pieces of tesserea accountable to make up the intricate mosaic patterns. Apart from the lack of upper floors (although there are still cases of some first and second floors that have survived), many of the posh villas look like they are almost ready to be furnished and moved into.
We didn't hire a tour guide or join in with a tour group, choosing to navigate the myriad of streets ourselves, and I admit we got a little lost. When they say, an entire city, they do mean an ENTIRE CITY- the place is huge and has all of the back streets that a modern city does. Some of the houses and shops still have their names above the doors, the shops have marble shop fronts with large earthenware pots set into the walls for them to display and store their wares, and the villas have the mosaic corridors leading behind the shop fronts to the courtyard areas with water features and trees that the private rooms adjoin to.
We managed to make our way back onto a main road and found ourselves in the theatre district, in the open air theatre where comedies and tragedies were held. Whilst eavesdropping on a school group, apparently this particular theatre was eventually turned over to small gladiator shows as citizens started to prefer the covered theatre that was built next door.
My favourite parts were the private villas. I think I would like to have a little courtyard in the middle of my house, all dolled out with fruit trees and decorative water features. I'm not sure what I would choose to be painted on my walls though, Pompeians seemed to prefer to have painted columns and scenes that looked almost like views from a window- I guess you could have had any view you chose to look out on.
We also found our way into the Amphitheatre, the oldest surviving Roman amphitheatre (or spectacula) in the world- which was a lot flatter than I was expecting. The Colosseum in Rome is very tall with many layers of arches climbing on top of each other, whereas this one seemed to be flatter and wider. It was quite a progressive built however, as it is the first known example of its kind to be built using stone, previously they would have been built out of wood, The sheer size of it is really breathtaking, and it would have fitted approximately 20,000 spectators on its stone seats to witness the show in the centre.
Over 90,000 artifacts have been found, and I believe they are still finding things as archaeologists and preservation societies work to preserve and 'restore' (as a ruin) the city. There were lots of areas being fixed or worked on, and other areas cordoned off where tourists would previously have been able to walk so there is obviously a lot to be done here so that future generations can learn from and experience the ruins.
This villa was incredible as the floor looked to be practically intact, with many existing murals still present on the walls. I watched lots of Time Team programs when I was younger, and the archaeologists would get so excited if they came across even a single portion of a mosaic, I can't begin to imagine what the person who discovered this one would have felt!
The bath houses were quite incredible also as sections of the plastered and painting ceiling had survived, along with pieces of the baths and pools, and Pilae (heating) stacks, linked to the hypocaust which was the Roman version of underfloor heating.
The saddest part was seeing the casts of the people in their glass cases. I'm not sure if they have been positioned exactly where they were found, or whether they have been moved to safer locations- but the way you can still see where there clothes are and the positions they adopted as their world fell apart around them is heartbreaking. Having watched various documentaries on this subject, some of the positions these people have been found in are actually due to the heat constricting their muscles- like the people found with their hands twisted in front of their faces.
Although what you see is the plaster cast, some tourists don't realise that the skeletons of these individuals are still encased within the plaster. They are still people.
In a big warehouse type building is the majority of the items discovered in the city. Pots and vessels stacked high on shelves, still intact and possibly with their contents stuck to the bottoms. There are more casts of the people here, and the toddler is particularly heart wrenching to see. It was interesting watching the reactions of parents who had come to view the ruins with their own babes. The twisted cast in the middle row, right hand side, is of a dog, possibly someones beloved pet. It's the kind of place where you feel the need to whisper, if you can talk at all, with so much history and sadness of a civilisation cut short in such a dramatic, earth shattering way.
It was a totally awe-inspiring day, and a privilege to be able to see how these people lived, and to remember them.