Monday, April 7, 2014

Various Factoids about Pompeii and Herculaneum

1) It is believed that about 16,000 people died in the eruption of Vesuvius.  They've found about a thousand bodies in the part of Pompeii that has been excavated, and about 300 in Herculaneum, in an even smaller excavated area.  But Pompeii and Herculaneum were only two towns of several that were buried and there were many rural areas as well.  Most of this will never be excavated.

2) In Herculaneum, in the largest, richest and most magnificent villa that has been excavated, in either Pompeii or Herculaneum, they found nearly 2,000 papyrus scrolls. They are carbonized, of course, but using modern technology they can be read.  This is the only private library to survive from ancient times.  At the moment, the Italian government is unwilling to let the papyri be read because they are very delicate and it may destroy them.

3) Archeology: I always thought of it as being about discovering things but it also destroys them.  It's particularly obvious when you see the results of 18th and 19th and even early 20th century archaeology. But as one archaeologist said, everytime you dig something up, you are destroying the site.  As techniques improve more can be done with less intrusive methods.

4) The date that is usually given for the eruption, August 24th 79CE, was the day after Vulcanalia, a celebration of  Vulcan, god of fire including volcanoes.

5) The best (only?) contemporary account of the eruption is from letters written by Pliny the Younger to Tacitus the historian. At the time of the eruption, Pliny was 17 and staying with his uncle, Pliny the Elder  in a city north of modern Naples called Misenum.  Pliny the Elder went to rescue some people and died - probably from a heart attack or stroke. The people he went to rescue survived.  Pliny the Younger was driven from his house with his mother by the falling ash and smoke and the darkness at midday. It sounds terrifying - he says that people thought it was the end of the world.

6) The date given by Pliny August 24th, 79 CE, is not supported by archaelogical finds.  The foodstuffs that were carbonized in Herculaneum are from later in the year.  One victim was found with a coin that had not been minted until September. People are dressed in heavy clothing.  There is speculation that the true date was late October or November, but, of course, there is no way to prove this and no explanation for why Pliny would have said otherwise.


Kate said...

Surely the Italian government could spare at least one, or two scrolls? What if they found some of the lost Greek plays or writings of Aristotle?

As with the Bayeux tapestry, I marvel that Pliny the Younger's account has survived. That is a wondrous thing! But strange about the date. Why would Pliny get that wrong?

The Bride said...

Mary Beard says that if you go back to medieval manuscripts of Pliny's letters, you find all kinds of different dates for the eruption. Apparently medieval scribes were very likely to miscopy dates. So that's one suggestion - Pliny got the date right, but somewhere along the way, someone else miscopied it and it stuck.