By now, most of the world knows what happened to Pompeii. The prosperous port city was infamously destroyed in the year 79 A.D., buried under layers of ash from nearby Mount Vesuvius. It was nearly forgotten until its excavation in 1748, when workers discovered that the city’s remains were remarkably well-preserved. From the remains, historians and archaeologists were able to see exactly what life was life in ancient Pompeii.
While I’d love to see the site of the forgotten city for myself (and I plan on doing so next year!), a trip to Italy is a costly expenditure, one that not everyone can afford.
Enter Premier Exhibitions. Their traveling exhibit brings Pompeii to life in cities around the world, featuring artifacts direct from Italy itself. It happened to be in town while I was visiting family in Washington, and better yet, it was at one of my favorite childhood locations, the Pacific Science Center. I headed into the Seattle rain, accompanied by my parents and my younger sister Michelle, who has seen Pompeii for herself.
The Pacific Science Center has always been a happy place for me. It was the site of many elementary school field trips, usually accompanied by one of my parents, and the place where we spent many weekends as a family. Upon reaching the center and renewing the family membership, we were assigned a time to come back and enter the Pompeii exhibition. No doubt this was a very popular exhibit, and I liked the way the staff approached the potential issues of long lines and overcrowding. Plus, it gave us the chance to explore the rest of the complex!
As if exploring life in Pompeii weren’t enough, we had the chance to peer into the Golden Age of a country I can’t wait to visit: Greece. Greece: Secrets of the Past, showing at the Science Center’s IMAX complex, uncovered this ancient world, which it called “the birthplace of Western Civilization.” I love world history, and I wound up scribbling fascinating little tidbits down on my Science Center visitor’s guide throughout the film.
For example, did you know that modern day Santorini is what remains after a massive volcanic eruption destroyed a much larger mass of land? The eruption, which occurred in the year 1646 BC, is speculated to be the largest volcanic eruption in the last few millenia. It had the force of 40 atom bombs, causing a massive tsunami on the island of Crete, and hurling volcanic ash all the way up to Greenland. If you look at a map of Santorini today, there are several smaller islands clustered around its own little bay.
Turns out, that water in the middle is actually part of a caldera, defined as “a large volcanic crater, typically one formed by a major eruption leading to the collapse of the mouth of the volcano.” It’s a wonder that any of the surviving islands withstood the volcano! Some people have theorized that Santorini is in fact the site of the legendary lost city of Atlantis, sunk beneath the water by fire and earthquakes.
Fueled by that intriguing thought, we headed out to claim our place in line for the main attraction. The first waiting area featured one large painting, a piece which captured the horror of the destruction of Pompeii:
There was almost a sense of reverence in the room as we waited to enter. It was like the subject of the painting was judging us for coming to gawk at her misfortune. I felt a little guilty about being so excited to finally peek into life in Pompeii. Wasn’t this a little morbid? It was humbling to think about all the people who died trying to escape from the fatal eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
At last, it was time to enter. The exhibit was, for the most part, centered around everyday life in Pompeii. I was surprised to learn that while the world recognizes Pompeii, there was in fact another Roman town simultaneously destroyed and preserved by the eruption. Herculaneum may not have been as large as its famed neighbor to the east, but it was hit just as hard.
Before the eruption, it seemed that life in these two towns was pretty good. Both were affluent areas, as shown by the lavish furnishings and beautiful trinkets left behind. Plaster frescoes, marble fountains, and bronze sculptures were the norm rather than the exception, and homes were beautifully designed for entertaining guests.
Many homes contained “peristyles,” a sort of garden and sitting area in place of a backyard, and featured a separate formal living area which was to be used strictly for entertaining purposes.
The exhibit was broken down to showcase various aspects of life under the Roman Empire.One room was dedicated to food, explaining the traditional Pompeiian kitchen style (or lack therof). It explained what foods were generally popular and why, as well as what items were frequently imported or exported.
Another room was dedicated to entertainment, from cheering on Roman gladiators to relaxing in the famed bathhouses. This was one of my favorite parts of the exhibit. I loved looking at the fancy glassware used when entertaining guests, or staring at a gladiator helmet, rusted and deformed over the years.
There was a small, clearly-marked section dedicated to Pompeii’s apparently-booming sex industry, which could easily be bypassed by children or those offended by such things. I found it interesting, but preferred to hear it firsthand from Michelle, who had seen this kind of thing when she visited the actual site in Italy. The brothels often had long hallways with curtained-off rooms. Graphic paintings above each room advertised the sexual act for sale just on the other side of the curtain.
After the brothel, it was time to see what everyone had come for. We climbed up the exit ramp, which was cast in red light, and which shook slightly under our footfalls. It was time at last to step into the nightmare, and learn about the demise of this ancient civilization.
Heading into the exhibition, I expected that the fall of Pompeii was sudden and completely unexpected. I was surprised to learn that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius occurred over a 24-hour period. The area surrounding Vesuvius had actually been plagued with tremors for several days before the eruption, but this was not out of the ordinary. There were warning signs: the volcano started to stir around 8am, finally blowing its top five hours later. Most people did in fact flee, while others took cover in their homes or even stayed to guard their possessions. Can you imagine?
Meanwhile, ash drifted across the two cities, clogging up any water exits and leaving even sea creatures stranded on the shore. Over the next few hours, hardened lava hailed down upon the roofs of the cities, eventually crushing many buildings and all the people too afraid to leave their homes. Finally, Vesuvius spewed burning ash and toxic gases across the two cities, killing anyone who still remained.
In their excavation of Pompeii, archaeologists discovered gaps in the layers of volcanic ash and mud. The natural material had hardened around the forms of people, immortalizing their final moments long after the bodies had deteriorated. By carefully pouring plaster into the gaps, scientists were able to create body casts of Pompeii’s citizens cowering or fleeing for their lives. Replicas of several of these casts were displayed in the final room of the exhibition.
This was what I had come to see. It’s human nature to be curious about this kind of thing, and I was even a little eager to see these casts for myself. It’s hard to explain how it felt to see these replicas in person, and it even made me a little nervous to see the actual body casts in Pompeii next year. The eruption occurred so long ago, it’s always been just a story to me. It was a bit of a slap in the face to realize that I was looking at the final moments of real people.
After this sobering final room, it was a bit surreal to exit into a gift shop selling jewelry, postcards, coloring books, and even snow globes swirling fake ash over a miniature Pompeii.
We would have loved to stay and look at some of the other exhibits at the Pacific Science Center (I’ve always been a fan of the butterfly exhibit!), we still had to squeeze in lunch before meeting the younger kids at home. We had planned to eat in Seattle, but opted instead to eat in our hometown of Redmond.
We ate at Crêperie de Paris, an adorable little shop which I believe is run by a French expat. My mom enjoyed chatting with him in their shared native tongue! We opted for savory crepes.
I mixed up my own order and asked for the Florentine crepe, which came loaded with spinach, tomato, onion, olives, feta and harissa.It was way too salty for my tastes (and I love salt, so that’s saying something), but my parents were happy to help me finish it! The Florentine may not have been for me, but I would still recommend this place to anyone visiting the Seattle area. I was lucky enough to return and try a dessert crepe later in the week, and it was fantastic!
Visiting the Pompeii exhibit made me even more determined to see Mount Vesuvius and the remains of Pompeii for myself when Dan and I are in Italy next spring. I can’t wait to see past the artifacts and replicas, and see the crumbling city in person.
Coming up: I’m working on posts about beautiful Deception Pass, Snoqualmie Falls, and what it’s like to visit the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival at the very end of the season!