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Monday, October 25, 2010


At noon on a summer day in 79 AD, the inhabitants of the prosperous city of Pompeii felt and heard rumblings coming from the nearby Vesuvius Mountain. They watched in wonder as a dense, black plume of rocks and ash rose out of its centre, shot high into the sky and spread out over their city. They had never seen or heard of anything like this before, and while many of the 20,000 inhabitants fled, at least 2000 stayed, not knowing that this would be a fatal decision. The volcanic eruption first spewed ash and pumice stone down on the city for 18 hours, and then the top of the mountain collapsed, releasing lethal gases and a mud and earth slide that buried the city under 30 feet of debris.

Knowledge of the city's existence faded over the next 15 centuries, and its ancient remains were only discovered in the 18th century when a deep hole was being dug for the base of an aqueduct. Restoration has been slow, but 3/4 of the site, preserved in every detail because of the catastrophe, is now excavated and partly restored. Although almost all of the statuary and personal effects of the inhabitants have been preserved in the Archaeological Museum in Naples, many replicas are onsite, so one gets a sense of the grandeur of a thriving Roman city where time stopped one day long ago.
As excavators uncovered human remains, they soon realized that the skeletons were surrounded by empty space in the compacted ash where the entombed body had been. By carefully pouring plaster of Paris into these spaces, the final poses, clothing and figures of many of the victims of Pompeii bear witness to their final moments. Although the whole site was amazing, viewing these bodies probably had the greatest impact on me, bringing to life the horrors of the final moments of their lives.

Scientific records now indicate that Vesuvius erupts every 2000 years. This means that there is a 50/50 chance of it erupting again any day now. Since over the years Naples has grown in the volcano’s shadow to a city of 3.5 million, let us hope there will be plenty of warning in the event of that happening. Rie