Nearly 2,000 years ago, Mount Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the city of Pompeii, burying it under layers of volcanic ash. Those remarkably well-preserved treasures survived the millennia and bring the Roman city to life in "Pompeii: The Exhibition," now at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
More than 150 artifacts, including wall-sized frescos, marble and bronze sculptures, gold jewelry, cooking and garden tools, mosaics, furniture, medical implements, gladiator gear and containers ranging from tiny glass flasks to huge clay amphorae are on view, as well as body casts of victims, frozen in time. A brief CGI film recreates the timeline of the eruption on Aug. 24, 79 A.D., simulating the disaster with sound and smoke.
One section simulates a Pompeiian brothel, displaying sexually explicit art and statuary (the male phallus was a good luck symbol and ubiquitous at the time). Visitors are forewarned, and can choose to skip this part of the display.
“What I like best about the exhibit is it really gives you a glimpse of daily life in Pompeii. It’s an opportunity to see a Roman city frozen in time, at the height of the Roman Empire. All the artifacts are in situ; they're all displayed where and how they'd be used," says Diane Perlov, the California Science Center's senior vice president of exhibits.
Gladiator armor from Pompeii on display for the "Pompeii: The Exhibition" at the California Science Center.
The artifacts are on loan from the Naples National Archaeological Museum in Italy, but not all of them were on view there. “A lot of them were put together especially for this tour,” adds Perlov, noting that the exhibit was previously at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and will go to the Pacific Science Center in Seattle after its L.A. run ends on Jan. 4, 2015.
The Italians were more than willing to cooperate, Perlov says, "They're pleased to have people learn about the history of Pompeii." But there were challenges in making it happen. "The items are fragile. There's marble that chips and there are wall frescoes that are very delicate so that's always a concern. Before they could travel, the conservator had to ascertain that they were stable enough to make the trip. You'd see a photo of a fresco that was excavated in the 1930s and it looks beautiful because it was preserved underground, but then it's exposed to air and photons from the sun and it starts to deteriorate."
For the items sturdy enough to travel, all the artifacts are protected by Plexiglas or behind barriers. "People can't touch them but they can get close enough to examine and learn from them," says Perlov. Although the real Pompeii is open to tourists, there's a moratorium on large-scale excavations — one third of the city is still buried — so that existing structures can be studied and preserved. "In the 1930s, they covered a lot of things with wax, but unintentionally caused a lot of damage to the objects, and now they're working really hard to correct the mistakes," she points out.
Dr. Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, is part of that collaborative process. "The Getty is working with [the Italian authorities] on preserving wall paintings, structures," says the archaeologist, noting that the Getty Villa in Malibu houses a full-scale reconstruction of a villa outside neighboring Herculaneum that was buried by the Vesuvius eruption.
Walking through the exhibit, Lapatin is particularly enamored of the intricately decorated bronze ceremonial gladiator armor. But it's a small marble sculpture of four newborn puppies on that fascinates him. While customs like blood sacrifices and slavery of this ancient culture may seem quite alien to us, "this modest little sculpture preserves the human connection." Through these objects, "We have the sense of human experience on many levels, of the disaster and of the daily life that preceded it."
Both experts weigh in on the ongoing fascination with Pompeii. For those who live in an earthquake zone, "We say, 'this could happen to us'," says Lapatin. Meanwhile, Perlov notes, "It's a tragic story and it also speaks a bit about the hubris of mankind. Pompeii was like the Las Vegas of the Roman Empire, with a lot of high living, and it was all destroyed. But it endures through these relics."
In addition to providing a glimpse into life in Pompeii, the exhibit includes a volcano section with comparisons and facts, such as Vesuvius has erupted five times since 1631, and that a million people live near it now, 400,000 of whom would likely be killed if it erupted today. As a Plinian volcano prone to explosive eruptions of pumice and ash, "Vesuvius is very different from others we have in Hawaii and elsewhere, where lava flows down the mountain," compares Perlov. Surprisingly, there were more survivors in 79 A.D. than most people think. "Pompeii had about 25,000 inhabitants at the time and only about 3,000 died," she says.
Lapatin, well-versed in movies and literature about Pompeii, has a mixed review of the recent film "Pompeii" (now out on DVD). "I thought the urban topography and presentation of the city was very well done and the effects were great. They got the eruption right — the volcano was the star. But the plot was pretty weak and there was no complexity to the characters." As for replicas of the sculptures, he surmises that verisimilitude was sacrificed to avoid an R rating. "There was no genitalia, and that wasn't realistic."
Timed entry tickets to "Pompeii: The Exhibition" cost $19.75 for adults, $16.75 for teens 13-17 and $12.75 for children under 12, with discounts available for seniors, groups and members. For an additional fee, visitors can see the IMAX film "Forces of Nature," about volcanoes, tornadoes and earthquakes and the science of disaster detection and prevention. Reservations are recommended. Visit the California Science Center website for for information.
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