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Pompeii in North America Volume 58 Number 5, September/October 2005
by Antonia Holden

Left, a fresco of Apollo with a lyre, from the west Triclinium at Pompeii; right, a cast of a man who spent his last moments crouched against a portico wall. (© Soprintendenza archeologica di Pompei) [image]

When Vesuvius buried Pompeii under ash and pumice in A.D. 79, it preserved the material culture of an ancient Roman town just before it was destroyed. "Tales From An Eruption," at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, through September 12 and opening at Chicago's Field Museum on October 22 (through March 26, 2006), offers an excellent overview of the events as they played out at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and their respective suburbs. After traveling Europe for the past two years, the exhibition now brings many artifacts to North America for the first time--including the fascinating but grim casts of Vesuvius' victims.

Developed by the Archaeological Superintendencies of Pompeii, and Naples and Caserta ("Voices From the Ashes," July/August 2003), "Tales From an Eruption" is organized by site, and the artifacts are displayed house by house so as to reflect their intimate connection to their owners. The accompanying text panels are clearly written. (Although the graffiti on the frescoes from the House of the Cryptoporticus is scantily explained: Are they all ancient? And why were some of the frescoes bolted to their cement backing?)

While these design elements make the exhibition accessible for the general public, the inclusion of several important pieces of sculpture and spectacular examples of minor arts will interest specialists and connoisseurs of Pompeii's antiquities. These include an Amazon head and a statue of Hera from the Villa of the Papyrii in Herculaneum; representative examples of monumental fresco painting, such as the recently restored Fourth Style paintings (late first century to second century A.D.) from the Building of the Triclinium in Moregine; and coins, gems, wooden furniture, embossed silver vessels, and jewelry.

The casts of the bodies of victims are fascinating, moving, and sometimes frightening--for example, the infant from the House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii. Particularly poignant, and gruesome, are casts of the people trapped in the Porta Marina in Herculaneum, who are contorted in agony as a result of asphyxiation and burns.

After its stay at the Field Museum, the elegantly conceived exhibition travels to Japan and China before returning to North America to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Antonia Holden is a classical archaeologist at the University of Ottawa.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America