Intro to Pompeii
Pompeii is an ancient Roman city located near modern day Naples, Italy. It is renowned for its well preserved Roman ruins, especially its well-preserved bodies, which provide a rare glimpse into the lives of its inhabitants almost 2,000 years ago. The city was destroyed on 24 August 79AD, when Mt. Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii under a layer of ash and rubble. For hundreds of years, it remained buried until around 1748, when the systematic excavation of Pompeii began. The discovery of thousands of bodies which were eerily preserved in the ash layer began to draw the attention of the world.
What is the Pompeii Ash Layer?
The ash layer that covered Pompeii is one of the most significant discoveries to date. At around 4-9m thick, the layers of ash and pumice contain an invaluable source of archaeological and anthropological information. This ash is largely made up of white aluminosilicate crystals, which were formed when molten rock and magma were ejected by the volcano thousands of years ago. As the people of Pompeii fled the eruption, the spewing of Mt Vesuvius created a fine, dust-like atmosphere that effectively engulfed the city. When this dust settled on the objects and bodies of the fleeing civilians, it cooled and hardened, preserving the artefacts, buildings and bodies in a way never seen before.
How were the bodies preserved?
The preservation of the bodies of Pompeii is the most extraordinary of the discoveries at Pompeii. They were preserved in an astonishingly lifelike state. Their skin, clothing and fine details of facial expression are clearly visible. This is largely down to the properties of the ash layer. The ash not only preserved details such as skin pigmentation and clothing, but also softened and carbonised flesh as well as bones.
The ash layer was extremely dry, and its microscopic grains were so fine they allowed gases to diffuse out of the bodies, preventing them from decaying. Additionally, the ash layer was highly alkaline and humid, creating an environment that kept bacteria from thriving which normally would have caused rapid decay of the bodies. This is why the Pompeii bodies are so well preserved, whereas in other areas of the city signs of decay have been noticed.
The Impact of the Discoveries
The discovery of the ash layer and the preserved bodies at Pompeii sparked a new interest in archaeology and anthropology. It was an unprecedented discovery that allowed for an almost forensically precise glimpse into the lives of the people of Pompeii. The discovery of the bodies and artefacts also allowed archaeologists to explore everyday details such as their clothing, hairstyle, diet and even their illnesses, allowing us to learn more about the life and culture of Pompeii than ever before.
The discovery of Pompeii has also been the catalyst to investigate other volcanically-preserved sites and bodies. For example, Herculaneum is another nearby city that was destroyed along with Pompeii and has been studied by researchers.
Modern Day Preservation
In modern day preservation methods, the techniques and materials used to preserve the bodies of Pompeii have been adapted for use in fields such as forensics, pathology, archaeology, and anthropology. An example of this is the “Vacuum Freeze-drying” technique which is a method used in crime scenes and involves using a vacuum chamber and cryoprotectants which mimic the Pompeii ash layer in its ability to preserve organic materials.
Analysis and Reflection
The discovery of the Pompeii bodies is a unique and extraordinary example of preservation due to the ash layer created by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii and its surrounding areas has been a source of invaluable information for understanding the lifestyles of Roman citizens, their culture and lifestyle. The preservation of bodies in an almost forensically precise detail allows us to learn more about the lives of our ancestors and provides numerous opportunities to examine them and uncover new knowledge. Finally, the preservation techniques used in Pompeii have been adapted and are now used in modern day forensic and archaeological investigations.
Preservation of Artefacts
Artefacts found in Pompeii have also been well preserved. The ash layer acted as an insulator, protecting the objects from being destroyed by decay and oxidation. This means that many wooden and fabric artefacts are still visible today. Pieces that were once made of wicker, fabric or leather were carbonised by the heat of the ash layer and retain their original shape. What is particularly remarkable is the preservation of food items such as olives and grains. These items, which are normally highly perishable, have been preserved by the ash layer, giving us an insight into the types of food the people of Pompeii ate.
Preservation of Buildings
The ash layer was also essential in preserving Pompeii’s buildings. Foundations and structures were preserved as the ash infiltrated cracks and crevices, preserving fine details and enhancing the stability of the structures. In some cases, ash was so thick that it preserved some structures entirely, including the floors, walls, roofs and even the upper parts of the buildings. Other structures, such as those built on top of brick and stone, have been carbonised and turned into stone due to the extreme temperatures created by the ash layer.
Preservation of Mosaics
One of the most extraordinary examples of preservation in Pompeii is the mosaics, which have been remarkably well-preserved. Made from millions of stone pieces, these mosaics depict scenes from the everyday lives of the people of Pompeii in intricate detail. The ash layer provided them with an effective protection against decay, allowing the delicate mosaics to be perfectly preserved.
Design of Preservation Techniques
The success of the preservation of the Pompeii artefacts, buildings and bodies is down to the design of the ash layer. The extremely dry and alkaline environment, as well as the microscopic particles which allowed gases to diffuse, was designed to preserve the remains with maximum effectiveness.
Furthermore, the Pompeii ash layer is one of the longest lasting example of preservation. Many of the artefacts, buildings and bodies that were preserved are still around 2,000 years later and continue to provide invaluable information. This is remarkable in comparison to other archaeological discoveries, which decay and corrode over a far shorter timeframe.
The ash layer in Pompeii is not the only example of preservation. In some cases, nature can preserve organic material just as effectively as the Pompeii ash layer. Many sites around the world have been frozen in permafrost which has allowed them to be preserved in a lifelike state. Additionally, bodies and objects have been discovered in tar pits, deserts and even underwater which have been preserved in excellent condition.
The study of preservation techniques used in Pompeii has allowed for the adaptation of these techniques for forensic applications. For example, bodies can now be preserved to allow for the successful collecting of evidence from them. Preservation techniques such as vacuum freeze-drying can also allow for the successful preservation of other organic materials, such as animal and plant remains, for further study.
The Legacy of Pompeii
The preservation techniques used in Pompeii continue to have a lasting legacy to this day and have made it possible to study and analyse the lives and culture of our ancient ancestors. Additionally, the techniques used in Pompeii have been extensively adapted and now continue to provide invaluable information in the fields of forensics, pathology, archaeology and anthropology. The discovery of Pompeii’s ash layer has been invaluable in uncovering the lost city, its artefacts and perhaps most importantly, the perfectly preserved bodies of its now forgotten inhabitants.