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The MFAH's Pompeii exhibit fascinates — and horrifies

Body Count

When Mount Vesuvius erupted on August 24 in 79 A.D., it killed thousands. But it also entombed and preserved an entire culture for millennia. The idea of a city and its people somehow being frozen in time is eternally and universally fascinating. "Pompeii: Tales from an Eruption" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston presents a revealing look at life in the city and nearby coastal cities of Herculaneum, Oplontis and Terzigno at the instant of the tragedy.

After almost 1,700 years of concealment, the site of Pompeii was rediscovered in 1594 when a water channel was dug through the area. But the era of treasure hunting and pillaging didn't begin in earnest until the mid-18th century. The site is still being excavated today. When Vesuvius erupted, great clouds of ash filtered down on Pompeii, suffocating and entombing the city and its fleeing residents. At first people tried to run or struggled to stay above the debris, but when pyroclastic surges of ash and noxious gases shot out of the volcano, any remaining inhabitants died immediately, cooked alive by the superheated air.

Included in the exhibition are fragments of frescos and furniture from residences. The jewelry and coins the victims tried to flee with are on view, as are the bodies of the Pompeians themselves, or rather, casts of their skeletons and the cavities left in the hardened ash by their decayed flesh. For good or ill, the bodies are what have always fascinated people the most about Pompeii.

Playing on the same impulse that makes people gawk at a car wreck, the MFAH has placed a small and pitiful-looking figure on the first steps of the Law building. It's a cast of a guy who died on a set of Pompeian stairs. It's there right as you walk in the door. Upstairs among other bodies, you can see casts of a dead family — a mother and father and two young children who were crushed under the staircase of their house. A man huddles in the fetal position, and a dog is caught in his death throes. In some casts, the limbs of the victims are pulled in close to the body in what is described as a "pugilistic attitude," which was caused by the intense heat contracting their flexor muscles.

It is possible that the Romans, with their predilections for coliseum spectacles, might not object to being displayed like this, but it's all still a little too disturbing. You can't help but look, but you don't feel good about it, especially if you turn the tables and imagine some later civilization being able to gawk at bodies from contemporary tragedies like 9/11 or Katrina.

And such qualms are apparently not a contemporary phenomenon. In the exhibition catalog is an excerpt from the 1786 travel journal of Hester Lynch Piozzi:

"How dreadful are the thoughts which such a sight suggests! How very horrible the certainty, that such a scene might be acted all over again tomorrow; and that, who today are spectators, may become spectacles to travelers of a succeeding century, who mistaking our bones for those of the Neapolitans, may carry some of them to their native country back again perhaps; as it came into my head that a French gentleman was doing, when I saw him put a human bone into his pocket this morning, and told him I hoped he got the jaw of a Gaulish officer, instead of a Roman soldier, for future reflections to energize upon."

Thankfully, visitors to Pompeii today are prevented from wandering off with bits and pieces of the former inhabitants. But bits and pieces of the inhabitants are on tour, and seeing them in the context of their belongings wavers between poignant and sensationalistic. The solidified remains of a wicker basket jammed with silver and bronze coins testify to the hasty flight of a terrified and wealthy resident. Meanwhile, three tiny silver spoons found near two skeletons may have been the most precious objects they owned.

Other objects provide you glimpses of the victims' daily lives. The fragments of frescoed walls are a testament to the richly ornamented elegance in which the wealthiest Pompeians lived. The slender lines of a restored bronze dining couch reveal a similar refinement in Pompeian furnishings and speak to the luxury of the seaside city.

Found with a man's body, a case of surgeon's tools contains implements for puncturing, stitching and extracting. Rings with rectangular blocks of letters were used to seal documents and bonds long since moot. There is a crisply etched silver mirror. You wonder whose image was last held in its surface, now dull and no longer reflective.

Artifacts from ancient civilizations are always fascinating, but their very age means they are inevitably stripped from their original context, and pristine museum display cases only exacerbate the problem. Imagine some 31st-century curator trying to convey your 21st-century way of life with a carefully reassembled "Ask me about my lobotomy" coffee mug on one pedestal, a toothpaste cap on another and a cut-up Visa card on yet another.

Pompeii and the other coastal sites are archaeological rarities that display an entire way of life entombed in a single day. And while "Tales from an Eruption" has widely and neatly spaced objects encased in vitrines or displayed on pedestals and plinths, the range of finds creates a fuller picture of Pompeian life. The casts of the bodies are like a slap in the head. They remind you that these things belonged to real people, real people who died horrible deaths.

 
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