British Museum blog

Telling the human story of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Telling the human story of Pompeii and HerculaneumVanessa Baldwin, exhibition project curator, British Museum

Many of the objects on display in the exhibition Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, are not artefacts, they are people’s possessions. The people living in these two cities saw them and used them every day; they commissioned them or bought them for each other, and for themselves.

After years of researching, planning, designing and building, the exhibition is now open and it’s all about the people – people going through their daily lives with no idea of what was coming; the volcanic eruption in AD 79 that destroyed their cities, their lives over in an instant.

My favourite object, at the moment – because it does change from moment to moment – is a marble plaque from Herculaneum. It was set up between two houses and on one side it reads: ‘this is the property of Marcus Nonius Dama, private and in perpetuity’. And on the other side it reads, ‘this is the wall of Julia, private and in perpetuity’.

Marcus and Julia were ex-slaves, and they were living next door to each other. They must have had some sort of dispute about the boundary between their houses and this plaque was set up to resolve it. The extraordinarily human stories like this one are what I love most in the exhibition: to know people’s names, know who they were living next door to, and how they might have lived.

Seeing the trucks full of objects arriving from Italy really took our breath away. To then see them emerge from their crates to become part of a design that we’d only ever seen on paper has been the most special experience.

Over the 15 months I’ve been working on the exhibition, it has been a privilege to share the process of staging an exhibition with the curator Paul Roberts and the many fantastic people in the Museum who’ve worked alongside us. To go from object research and selection to their arrival and installation has been a whirlwind that I’ll never forget.

And now we get to share the stories, the objects and the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum with everyone.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is open from 28 March 2013.

The exhibition is sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
In collaboration with Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Tweet using #PompeiiExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Pigment and power dressing in Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman EgyptElisabeth R. O’Connell, curator, British Museum

‘That’s one weird looking bird,’ grinned an American student on one of my tours of the Ancient Egypt and Sudan Department study collection for university students last year.

And to Egyptology students he is. And to students of Classical Archaeology too. But that’s rather the point. Roman Egypt (30 BC-AD 642) witnessed some of the most interesting, innovative and transformative combinations of traditions in the ancient world.

The god sits casually on his throne, one sandal-clad foot forward, his knees apart and draped in a garment. From the waist down, he could be any of a number of senior Olympian deities, or Roman emperors masquerading as such. He wears a feathered mail armour shirt that ends just above his elbows. His arms, now broken off, would have held symbols of power, perhaps an orb and sceptre. His cloak, pushed back over his shoulders, is fastened with a circular broach. From the waist up, his costume belongs to military deities and, especially, Roman emperors, who were also worshipped in temples dedicated to them throughout the empire. The head, however, places us firmly in an Egyptian context.

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

It’s Horus, the sun god and divine representative of the living king in ancient Egyptian tradition. His head is that of a falcon, rendered in naturalistic style with the bird’s distinctive facial markings articulated by the carving and also traces of paint. His eyes, however, are strangely human; instead of being placed on the sides of the head, like any ‘real’ bird, they are frontal, and his incised pupils tilt his gaze upward. In an imaginative turn, the feathers of the falcon’s neck blend into the scales of the mail shirt. In the top of his head is a hole, into which a (probably metal) crown once fit.

Big Bird, as I think of him, has been off public display since 1996 when the gallery he was formerly displayed in was reconfigured to create the Great Court. Since I arrived at the Museum in 2007, he’s been the culmination of my tours for university students, giving us the opportunity to explore cultural identity through different kinds of objects from Roman Egypt. We look at magical papyri written in Egyptian and Greek, with some of the Egyptian words written in Old Coptic, that is, the Egyptian language written in Greek script. Why the glosses of Egyptian words in Greek script? Because in magical spells it was very important to say the words correctly or else the spell wouldn’t work. And Greek script, unlike Egyptian, represented the vowels ensuring that the words said aloud were accurately pronounced at a time when literacy in Egyptian scripts was on the wane. We also look at mummy portraits belonging firmly in the Roman tradition of individualised commemorative portraiture, but made for the specific purpose of placing over the face of a mummy, a feature that belongs unmistakably to Egyptian funerary practice. We see the same combination of traditions in this limestone sculpture of Horus and other contemporary depictions.

The opportunity to get the sculpture on public display arose last year when the Gayer-Anderson cat was scheduled to travel to Paris, then Shetland, for exhibition. Big Bird would get his very own case at the top of a ramp, amid other sculpture more readily identifiable as ‘Egyptian’ in the British Museum Egyptian Sculpture Gallery.

While preparing the display, we also had a chance to identify some of the pigments that are apparent to the naked eye: his yellow arms, black pupils and ‘eye-liner,’ garments in two different shades of green, and his red and black throne. Using an innovative imaging technique, we were also able to detect the pigment used for his armour, and it turned out to be one of the most valued pigments of the ancient world, Egyptian blue.

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

Although no longer apparent to the naked eye, it shows up in visible-induced luminescence imaging by British Museum scientist, Joanne Dyer. In addition to the strange (to us) combination of Graeco-Roman-Egyptian elements, he would also have been rather garishly painted.

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

Horus – I should really stop thinking of him as Big Bird – will not go back into the study collection when the Gayer-Anderson cat returns, but instead join a touring exhibition on the Roman Empire which will give visitors to the exhibition in locations including Bristol, Norwich and Coventry, that is, in former Roman Britain, an opportunity to see a selection of objects from Antinoupolis and other cities from the former empire’s southern frontier, Roman Egypt.

For their collaboration and enthusiasm, I thank Joanne Dyer, Tracey Sweek, Michelle Hercules, Antony Simpson, Susan Holmes, Paul Goodhead, Robert Frith, Evan York, Emily Taylor and Kathleen Scott from the American Research Center in Egypt.

The sculpture of Horus will be on display until 10 December 2012, in Room 4

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Reading the Romans


Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge

If you want to find some really vivid stories about ordinary ancient Romans – not just about the toffs, the generals, and the emperors – some of the very best places to look are their tombstones. These give some amazing insights into the lives of real Romans – not those right at the very bottom of the social heap (people down there couldn’t afford a memorial) but those not all that far from the bottom.

OK, the epitaphs are written in Latin – but it’s often very easy Latin. And even if you don’t know a single word of the language, you can get quite a lot out of them with only a very little help.

In the BBC Two series Meet the Romans, we have looked at some really memorable – and quirky – epitaphs. I’m particularly keen on one ex-slave woman we came across: Allia Potestas, who lived in a ménage à trois with her two lovers (she was always the first up and the last to bed of the trio, we’re told – do things ever change?). But my other favourites were poor little Doris, who died in a terrible fire, and a splendidly pushy baker called Eurysaces, who didn’t only tell you what his job was, but even had his tomb built in the shape of a baker’s oven.

We actually filmed one epitaph from the British Museum, which we didn’t in the end use in the series – partly because there was almost too much to say about it. You can find it on the wall in Room 70

It’s a tombstone from Rome (first century BCE) of a husband and wife pictured in the middle. He (on the left) is called Aurelius Hermia and she (on the right) is called Aurelia Philematio (or Philematium, as it’s written a bit further down). They are both ex-slaves, who have at some point been given their freedom.

Inscribed stone funerary relief of Aurelius Hermia and his wife Aurelia Philmatium

Inscribed stone funerary relief of Aurelius Hermia and his wife Aurelia Philmatium

How do we know that? Well right in the middle of both their names are two give-away letters “ L. L” – short for “Lucii libertus” or “Lucii liberta”, that is, “the ex-slave man or ex-slave woman of a man called Lucius”. One of the most extraordinary facts is that well over half the tombstones discovered from the city commemorate ex-slaves, and most of them are instantly recognizable with the letter “L” or more often the abbreviation “Lib” in their names. Romans owned hundreds of thousands of slaves, but also freed loads of them. Slavery in Rome wasn’t always a life-sentence.

Anyway, the husband takes the left. This side is more battered (as you can see, even a bit of the name has been lost). But we can still work out that he was a “lanius de colle Viminale”, “a butcher from the Viminal hill”, one of the seven hills of Rome. (The word “lanius” is missing its first couple of letters… but if we had, in English, the phrase “…tcher from the Viminal hill”, we’d have little doubt what it meant!).

He goes on to explain that his wife had predeceased him (you can spot the word “praecessit”), and of course that she had always lived devoted to him, as he was devoted to her (that is, she “stood by her man”, “fida viro” on the fifth line from the bottom). That, I guess, is a cliché even of epitaphs today. I don’t think we have to imagine that there was literally never a cross word between this pair.

Detail of the right hand side of the tombstone

Detail of the right hand side of the tombstone

It’s the woman’s side on the right, though, where things get really curious. It starts off with some fairly conventional praise for a Roman woman. She was “casta, pudens, volgei nescia”, that’s “chaste, modest and unknown to the crowd” – she was “not gossiped about” would perhaps be a better translation. But after that it starts to get intriguing, if not downright odd.

The husband, we are told, “was more than a parent” to the wife (you can spot the word “parens” seven lines up). They had met when she was just seven years old (“septem me naatam annorurum”) and he took her on his lap (“gremio”), and she died when she was 40 (“XXXX”) – meanwhile her husband had flourished under her dutiful care (“meo officio”).

Hang on, we think. He took her on his lap when she was just seven years old? What exactly was Hermia up to with little Philematio on his knee? When precisely did they get married? Of course we don’t – and can’t – know. But explanations tend to fall into two broad camps.

Explanation A. Some people imagine that when this pair had been slaves, the older Hermia had looked after the little girl, just like a dad… and maybe years later when both had been freed by their master Lucius, they married. This was a slave friendship that grew into free married union.

Explanation B. Other people take a rather more dismal view of the partnership. They point out that Roman girls often got married much earlier than we do. In Meet the Romans we find one 12 year old, dying just before her wedding day. Even seven years old is not absolutely unheard of. So forget all those romantic notions of a kindly Hermia innocently befriending the young Philematio in the slave quarters. Slave or free, he had probably marked her out (at least) as his partner at the tender age of seven.

I hope Explanation A is the right one. But we certainly can’t be sure. The dutiful, chaste and modest Philematio may have been, quite literally, a child bride.

Professor Mary Beard presents Meet The Romans on BBC Two at 21.00 on Tuesdays from 17 April

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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
Examples of Early Bronze Age craftsmanship on display include a silver bull and cup, and business archives of Middle Bronze Age merchants illustrate trading between central Anatolia and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Delicate gold jewellery and figurines date from the Hittite period, and Iron Age objects from Urartu include winged bulls and griffins that were used to decorate furniture. Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces it's Room 53, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Ancient South Arabia. Ancient South Arabia was centred on what is now modern Yemen but included parts of Saudi Arabia and southern Oman. It was famous in the ancient world as an important source of valuable incense and perfume, and was described by Classical writers as Arabia Felix ('Fortunate Arabia') because of its fertility.
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The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other. The object in the centre of this picture is the Mold gold cape, found in Flintshire in 1833 and dating to around 1900–1600 BC.
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