Pompeii and Vesuvius, Part I: The Destroyed

June 18, 2011 – If an inescapable fiery cataclysm ever engulfs my town, some of my last thoughts will be about my loved ones. But not my very last thought. That’ll be, “One day me and my living room might be a tourist attraction.” And that’s Pompeii’s fault.

One of the most infamous disasters in the world, the destruction of Pompeii shows us how temporary our mighty cities can be...and then also shows us how permanent they can be. Story morals are confusing.

According to more Internet sources than I’m used to accessing, it happened this way. In 79 A.D., just one day after Vulcanalia, a Roman festival dedicated to its god of fire, the volcano Vesuvius threw its own little party after hundreds of years of being just an interesting landmark. It destroyed a few cities, but Pompeii became its most famous victim due to its size, extravagant culture, and the fact that it was the easiest to excavate (and monetize).

According to the latest scientific understanding of how much of a jerk a volcano can be, it's believed that the victims in Pompeii were killed quickly when a wave of 250-degree heat surged from Vesuvius, after which the volcano politely finished the job (or guiltily hid the evidence), burying its victims under scores of feet of ash and dirt and rock that rained for days.

The end. It was Atlantis time for Pompeii.

Except that the land is a less greedy invader than the sea. In the late 1500s artifacts started being discovered in the area, but it wasn’t until the 1700s and the discovery of nearby Herculaneum, another city buried by the event, that its rediscovery really motivated archeological work to start in earnest. Er, Pompeii.

Today, this exhumed city is a train stop populated by roving bands of school children and tourists who cavort in its private residences and take breaks in its modern, air-conditioned pizza cafeteria. This is the part where people usually quote Bob Dylan.

We did Pompeii as part of a long day trip from Rome that also included a trek up Vesuvius that I’ll save for the second part of this article. We made early-morning reservations on a train departing from Roma Termini and then enjoyed an easy three-hour trek to Naples, where we changed to the Circumvesuviana, the local commuter train, for a half-hour leg, getting off at the Pompeii Suvi stop, a few steps from the entrance to the ruins of the ancient city.

If you don’t sign up for a tour or come with a tour group, you basically have free (or rather entrance fee-paid) run of the city. You can see the colonnaded ruins of its temples, walks its stone-paved streets, jump into any random private residence to see the many remarkable and remarkably preserved murals, and generally just experience how fascinating, and a lot of fun, the remnants of tragedy can be.

It’s big enough that you’d need to spend all day there to see everything, but also repetitious enough (ruined house after ruined house after ruined house) that a few hours is all you need to really get Pompeii. Still, how often will you get the chance to walk the streets of a 2,500-year-old city that’s been almost completely preserved. I mean, in Rome you’re only walking on the top, modernized strata of many millenniums’ worth of history. In Pompeii, you’re walking through the original strata almost as-was.

And you do so in the ever-present and ominous shadow of its killer and preserver. While we tripped over its large cobblestones and documented the place with our cameras better than an army of trained archeologists using field notes, Vesuvius hid itself within an apologetic aura of clouds. So we lost a bit of the drama of being able to see the dragon from the perspective of the dragoned. It did make for some pretty cool pictures once we were up in those clouds, though. Again, Part 2. I guess “Part II” would be more appropriate.

We were there for about half a day and we basically toured it using our Spidey senses, so we didn’t see everything. But we saw some cool[ed] stuff. Highlights were certainly the surviving murals that were both interesting in themselves and for breaking up the monotony of crumbling stone wall after crumbling stone wall. Also, the fully excavated amphitheater, which you can enter and stand in the center like a Roman gladiator…or Pink Floyd (Thanks for that tip, @sevenmileswest).

My personal favorite was the brothel, with its stone beds and erotic art. Not because I’m a pervert. That’s irrelevant. But because how many times do you get the chance to walk into one with your wife and friends in the name of history and take pictures of each other in the name of tourism. If you’re answer is any number above 0, than you’re the reason there’s a comment section at the end of this piece. Also, I know an instrument-of-God volcano that would like a word with you.

Of course, you can see ruined Roman cities all over Italy. Pompeii has more than that. It has artifacts. And by artifacts I mean bodies. And by bodies I mean hollow human shapes. As compelling as it is to see the remains of the city, far more compelling are the remains of the people (and animals) who lived there.

What happened was, in excavating the city, workers would find human-shaped pockets of air where the body had rotted away and the surrounding solidified deposit had kept the form. Archeologists would inject a hardening foam into the hole and pull out the cast of the body in its exact final death throe. Unfortunately, the process all but destroys any remaining biological material, but you get to see how many of the Pompeians met their end. Crouching in terror, crawling in terror, writhing in terror, foxtrotting in terror.

You can see a few of these foam forms near the entrance to the city, right by the aforementioned cafeteria. They’re located in a long stone building, the front wall of which has been striped with iron bars, so that you look into its contents from the outside. The building contains shelves and shelves of pottery and statuary, but only a few bodies pushed into open spaces and spread apart for maximum crowd gawkage. There’s even a dog. Many more Pompeii artifacts and body casts (and erotic art) can be seen at the National Archeological Museum in nearby Naples, at other museums, and at the various traveling exhibits that constantly traverse the world. There are apparently plenty of bodies to go around.

We left Pompeii a bit dusty and a bit beat. It’s a lot of walking. A lot of saying “Look at this.” A lot of wandering and wondering if we’d been down this road before. A lot of ducking down alleyways and into buildings to avoid duck-and-duckling tour groups. We just wanted to collapse into a train seat, shove our faces into exotically flavored gelatos, and then sleep the sleep of the not-doomed. But we still had a volcano to climb.

Part II: Next, we meet the destroyer, Vesuvius itself, and look deep into its heaven-pointed maw. Oh, and here are more pics of Pompeii...the vertical ones that are difficult to wrap text around.