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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Pompeii at the Singapore National Museum

Artifacts unearthed from the ancient city of Pompeii came to town. To cut a long story short, Pompeii was the thriving city hub of a wine making, vine-growing region of very fertile volcanic soil. It nestled tranquilly in the shadow of Mt Vesuvius. It was a city of gold, silver and good food. In it, archeologists found frescoes (i.e., painted walls) and rich mosaics of bright colours. There were marble statues of Roman Gods and Goddesses (half naked). There were frescoes in brothels and boudoirs depicting certain excesses that were possibly related to the many wines (causing inebriation) the region was known to produce. People ate out often (like we do in Singapore)and so there were market stalls and restaurants and taverns. And only the rich had fully functional kitchens 3 times a day, 7 days a week. The rich had slaves to do the cooking and cleaning you see.

We wouldn't be able to understand nor admire the life and times of an ancient Roman city if not for the fact that Mt Vesuvius erupted one day and buried the whole city in pumice stone and volcanic ash. This preserved the city from one point in time till now.

Pumice stone is originally expelled from the volcano as foaming molten rock. You know, like the way a Coca Cola bottle shoots out foam? Except that 35km up in the air, the rock foam solidifies into rock with plenty of holes in it. Each piece is light but when 10 to 20 feet of pumice stone fall on the roofs... beams collapse and all the pumice stone fills the rooms in all the houses. The pumice stone protected and preserved the beautiful wall paintings much like how we protect our valuable paintings using styrofoam peanuts.

Then there was the expulsion of volcanic ash. Volcanic ash lay like a blanket of snow on all the fallen bodies. They fell lightly and entered every crevice (eyes, nose, folds in the clothes... straps of the sandals)... and when the blanket of ash hardened into rock many centuries later, a hollow was left where the body had lain and rotted away.

An archeologist pumped resin into each hollow he found and created for us the unspeakably horrific resin casts that Pompeii is now famous for. Every fold in their robes were outlined in the hollow. Sandal straps that have crumbled to dust are preserved in the hollow that gave rise to the extremely detailed casts.

Above, I have uploaded a picture of the famous cast of the chained dog. The dog had been chained to a post. As the pumice stones fell, the dog clambered atop the stones until it ran out of chain. It died smothered with its snout pointing upwards to get air. Little Boy was most upset, and I could not but feel my stomach twist. We both thought of Milo. In some houses where the roofs did not collapse, skeletons were found preserved by the dry air (dessicated by the heat from the volcanice eruption). There was a pair of skeletons of an old man holding his old wife. There was another of a young girl in an advanced state of pregnancy. There were alive and well one day, and completely carbonised the next. There was a note that informed us that these were not works of art nor interpretations of death. They were actually people and animals in the throes of death and the midst of dying... preserved for eternity in resin or in the position where their bones lay. It was horrific.

However, if one does not tarry too long upon the morbid, there is much to wonder at. The frescoes and mosaics are really beautiful. Pompeiians had beautiful gardens... and like us in Singapore, they loved bringing the outside into the house. One villa had a doorway leading to the garden but the wall holding the door was fully painted with plants and flowers of every sort. Air wells in atriums let light and rain into the house. Perhaps fish swam in these indoor outdoor ponds?

The volcanic ash preserved tables fully laid out with food... half eaten. There were dates, and olives... and olive seeds. There were loaves of bread and fish... all preserved in the stone. It was amazing. It was like travelling back in time to the New York of the Roman Empire, and watching the bustle of New York life re-enacted in a different form.

The Pompeii exhibition is well worth a visit. However the new interactive history gallery put up by the National Museum of Singapore was eye poppingly well done. One walked around it with an IT companion. Every exhibit was explained... and the sights and sounds were recreated for you just in private. We got lost in there and almost forgot that we were there for Pompeii. We tore ourselves away, promising to go back to see it all. I reckon it would take all of 4 or 5 days to see it in its entirety.


My SINFONIA said...

Fascinating...So good to have this coming to your doorstep.

petunialee said...

I had thought you might like the exhibition...

Malar said...

Interesting post! Informative indeed!

petunialee said...

Malar - If you are interested there is a youtube BBC documentary called the Last Day of Pompeii. It is very interesting to watch.