British Museum blog

Pompeii and Herculaneum: two ordinary cities with an extraordinary story

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79. © DeAgostini/SuperStock

David Prudames, British Museum

In AD 79, late in the year, two cities – Herculaneum and Pompeii – along with various small towns, villages, and farms in the south of Italy were wiped out in just 24 hours by the catastrophic eruption of the nearby Mount Vesuvius. This event ended the life of the cities, but preserved them to be rediscovered by archaeologists nearly 1,700 years later.

These were not extraordinary cities; they died in an extraordinary way, but they were ordinary ancient Roman cities, and because of this they have been able to become a lens through which we can see and understand a whole civilisation.

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79. © DeAgostini/SuperStock

In spring 2013, these two cities and their unique story will be explored in a major exhibition at the British Museum, that will – in the words of Museum Director, Neil MacGregor – be a chance ‘to visit the cities and to visit the houses in the cities; to be inside a Roman household, inside a Roman street; to know what it felt like, to know what was going on.’

Through objects from the British Museum collection and an immensely generous loan of 250 objects from Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum – many of which have never been seen outside Italy – the exhibition will focus on the daily lives of the ordinary people who lived there.

Exhibition curator, Paul Roberts explained how in exploring daily life we have a chance to see how people like us would have lived in an ancient reflection of our own lives:

‘Daily life; the home, and domestic life, it’s something that we all share. The home gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore how people like us lived in Roman times: perhaps they didn’t all go to the baths, or the amphitheatre, but poor or wealthy they all had a home.’

Through some of the most famous objects to have emerged from the two cities, and finds unearthed during recent archaeological work there, the exhibition will look at the make-up and activity of homes – and the people who lived in them – at both Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st Century AD, Pompeii

Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st Century AD, Pompeii

Often the stories revealed are surprising. For example, from Pompeii, the large industrial centre of the region with a population of around 12-15,000, comes a statue of a woman commemorating her funding – with her own money – of the largest building in the forum, the heart of the city. This, in a male-dominated society where women might not usually be known as the rich patrons of civic monuments.

While at the same time, the more mundane elements of life are revealed in objects such as an extraordinarily well-preserved loaf of bread that, in Paul’s words, ‘went in the oven in AD 79 and came out in the 1930s’.

But of course the reason we know this story and can see these wonderful objects is because of the tragedy which struck in AD 79. Incredible finds from Herculaneum, a smaller seaside town of some 4-5,000 inhabitants, include food, leather, and wooden furniture – from a table to a baby’s cot – and survive only because they were carbonised (turned into charcoal) by the 4-500 degree Celsius volcanic avalanche that engulfed the city.

As Paul explained:

‘We can’t imagine the horror of that day, but we can see what people did. Some of them were practical, taking a lantern or a lamp to help them stumble through the total darkness of the volcanic blizzard. Other people took gold and silver in the form of coins or jewellery. One little girl took her charm bracelet with pieces from all over the Roman world and beyond, such as cowries from the Indian Ocean, amber from the Baltic, rock crystal from the Alps, faience from Egypt. She had this with her when she died on the beach at Herculaneum with hundreds of others.’

Some 2,000 years later that charm bracelet will be among the objects on display at the British Museum next year, allowing us as it does to recall and remember the real people whose lives we are so privileged to be able to see and understand:‘We had to have the death of Pompeii and Herculaneum to know so much about the people who lived there, but it’s their lives that we will be celebrating in this exhibition.’

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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8 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. ritaroberts says:

    What a terifying experience these people suffered.But we are still remembering them. Maybe a statue should be put up in Rome in rememberence to them.

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  2. pwest9 says:

    What a treat for 2013. As a visitor to Pompeii and Herculaneum as well as having an interest in the history of the Roman Empire I have always been struck by the simplest of artefacts and the so called mundane aspects of the preserved life in these two cities.

    I do not believe in ghosts but on my visits I could certainly imagine life there prior to the eruption. The preservation work and diligence of the people who work on these sites is commendable and preserves a fantastic glimpse of the period. There can be no doubt about the horror and the tragedy but it provides us with a tantalising visual snapshot of that era. I look forward to visiting the exhibition next year.

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  3. A very real treat for 2013 – I remember the exhibition 20 years ago and what an impact it made on me then! I shall certainly be bringing several groups down during the course of this exhibition: thank you in advance to the British Museum!
    Just one query: can I get a catalogue or booklet in advance … so I can give my adult students and groups good warm-up sessions to get them all geared up and ready to make the most of it all before we come down ..?

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  4. dave cardell says:

    where can i purchase a picture book about the exhibit and or about the
    cities, the relics, and the excavation.

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  5. sandy says:

    i hope i can see this exhibition then

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  6. Julie Crickmay says:

    My 4 year old grandson is fascinated by Pompeii. Would this exhibition be suitable for him, or is he too young?

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  7. Sabrine Sabrine says:

    I hope one day so deep in the future that I will be able to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum and experience this real life event in my mind. I wish I would be able to see these artifacts still in great condition not if us humans decide to be so careless and slowly degrade these magnificent artifacts. Hopefully with my fingers crossed, maybe one day I would tell the story to my children and they tell their children and one day be able to see Pompeii and Herculaneum through the same eyes. If all humanity one day stops and realizes the many missing gaps in the world’s chapters, maybe we can join forces and break the chains of missing world history. I deeply thank the historians and archaeologist who take action to save world history.

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  8. J Munro says:

    I’ve actually been to Pompeii 3 times. Once we were given a secret private viewing of some under floor heating that was being excavated before our eyes. It hadn’t been seen for 2000 years. But even though I’ve wandered the actual streets of Pompeii, seen the exhibits in the Naples Museum, watched Mary Beard’s TV programme countless times, read her book again and again, I can’t wait to come and see the exhibition – it’s been in my calendar for ages! I’d wanted to go to Pompeii ever since I read about it as a child and I really can’t imagine it will the last trip there I’ll make.

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