Saturday, December 12, 2009
Under the Ashes
Pompeii - known for its grand villas and famous fish sauce, lavish homes with beautiful courtyard gardens, heating systems and running water. It was a vibrant city and a flourishing Roman trade town, until disaster struck...
August 4, A.D. 29, a cloud of smoke shaped like a pine tree could be seen escaping from Mt. Vesuvius. As astonished Pompeians made haste to collect all of their valuable belongings and flee towards the Bay of Naples, they could already taste the ash upon their tongues. They played fugitives on the beach, hoping to wait out the blanket of ash smothering their city. They would have no idea that in the next 19 hours, Pompeii would fall into a silent darkness. Just another lost civilization.
It would be another 1,700 years in 1748 before archeologists would begin the never-ending process of uncovering and preserving this lost city. An 18-year dig in Herculaneum, a city overlooking the Bay of Naples, revealed 300 bodies excavated from 75 feet of solidified ash. These were the escapees from Pompeii, most found to be carrying with them items of value. These victims were once assumed to have died from asphyxiation (suffocation), but it is later discovered through the study of bone fractures, that these Pompieans died instantly from thermal shock after a swell of heat overwhelmed the beach area. The fugitives were killed in mere seconds without any time to react.
It was a dreary day in Naples. It was overcast and only a matter of time before the clouds would open up to the rain, yet it set the perfect mood as I set foot onto Pompeii. It was the most fascinating part of my month-long trip exploring Europe. Pompeii was rich with an inauspicious history, but these tragic events made it all the more intriguing to me. As our tour guide led us through the unveiled streets of the once invisible city, I looked from right to left at what were once store fronts, villas, and whore houses. It could only lead me to imagine what it would be like to be living prosperously and peacefully one second and nineteen hours later vanish from existence. The tour guide answered this question for me. He told us a story about Pliny the Younger, the first and only eyewitness account of the life-altering event. I found more information on him through the Discovery Channel website to refresh my memory. Pliny the Younger was at his uncle's house, known as Pliny the Elder. As Mt. Vesuvius was blowing its top off, Pliny the Elder headed for the heart of Pompeii to witness the event. He did not survive, but Pliny the Younger, who stayed behind with his mother, survived. He wrote accounts of his first hand account of the deadly event and sent it to Tacitus, a Roman historian. He describes the terrible time as a "last unending night for the world" and so frightful that "some prayed for death." The cloud of ash was described as "the black of closed and unlighted rooms. "He describes the atmosphere as so thick of ash that they "stood up and shook up the ash again and again, otherwise [they] would have been covered by it been crushed by the weight." As the smoke died down, Pliny portrays what is left as a "changed world, buried in ash, like snow."
2,000 bodies were excavated, but 10,000 lives are estimated to being lost. It is so fascinating, though, to think that some actually did survive this catastrophic event, but there is no doubt it was possible. Take this quiz to see if you would have survived. I answered 13 out of 18 questions correct and made it to safety.