Nearly two thousand years ago death and destruction literally rained down on two cities in the Bay of Naples in southern Italy – the famous Pompeii and its seaside neighbour Herculaneum were both almost completely and instantly buried by an enormous eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
The tremors had been felt but not heeded, so when the lava arrived and the gaseous clouds engulfed, the inhabitants were largely caught unawares. Their loss though, if one can put it this way, is our gain as the volcanic destruction became an unlikely preservative and the inhabitants, their way of life, and even their direct physical presence were sealed in as a snapshot of daily life, only to be unearthed 1,500 years later (and only properly re-unearthed almost 150 years after that) to be finally present in the future.
Magically preserved under metres of dessicating ash the two towns give us in the modern world a startlingly direct view of life right in the middle of the Pax Romana.
The British Museum’s show is the first time that this many artefacts from the two towns have been brought into one place outside Italy. Spread out under the great dome of the Museum’s Reading Room, you enter as though going back in time to an ancient market town, complete with villas, art and rubbish (literally).
Brief sections give story and context at the beginning and end the exhibition, otherwise you are left to wander to streets and houses, to discover and to marvel. The exhibition doesn’t shy away from the horror of the main event, casts of contorted bodies show that destruction came with a horrifying realisation – nor the often scandalous nature of Ancient Roman morality – but is a beautifully presented joy.