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Secrets from under the ash and dust

by Tiffany Lafleur February 7, 2016
Secrets from under the ash and dust

The largest exhibit of its kind in Quebec, Pompeii focuses on the lives cut short by a historic eruption

It is a bittersweet irony that one of the things that make Pompeii so interesting is the violent and explosive nature of its downfall.

Archaeologists unearth victims in the Garden of the Fugitives.

Archaeologists unearth victims in the Garden of the Fugitives. Photo © Bettmann / CORBIS

Beneath the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii lay dormant, blanketed under ash and dust from the two-day volcanic event that started on Aug. 24, 79 A.D. and spewed several tons of molten rock, searing hot gases and pumice into the air. Thousands of its inhabitants were preserved in hardened ash casings, frozen in the positions they died in.

The objects uncovered from excavations are now on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), from Feb. 6 to Sept. 5. The largest exhibit on Pompeii ever presented in Quebec, it is the result of a partnership between the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, in collaboration with the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli and the Soprintendenza archeologica di Pompei.

A fresco of the distribution of bread.

A fresco of the distribution of bread.

Pompeii’s development was halted in its tracks. Its present, forever frozen in time, is our past; its future violently taken away from it. But the brutal and apocalyptic way in which the city was destroyed is the very reason why there are such well-preserved artefacts to study, kept for centuries under the volcanic dust.

Marble and bronze statues, frescoes, tools, artwork and coins are all on display at the museum. The exhibit takes the spotlight away from the apocalyptic disaster and instead focuses on Pompeians’ way of life: what they ate, how they cooked, how homes were decorated and what they used as currency.

The MMFA does an excellent job of portraying life as it would have been in Pompeii, leading right up to the day it was buried. Included in these day-to-day artefacts are clues and signs of its downfall.

The unsteady ground that Pompeii stood on was reflected in their art. In 62 A.D., tremors rocked the city, damaging buildings and scaring the inhabitants, a precursor to the deadly volcanic eruption. This damage, such as crooked statues and precariously tilted temples, is reflected in a marble relief.

A blackened half loaf of carbonized bread was also on display, still recognizable. Bread would have been used as a way to distinguish between the different social classes. Higher-quality bread was available to higher social classes, while the lower classes settled for lesser ingredients. Over forty bakeries have been discovered in Pompeii.  

Although the exhibit as a whole treats the eruption as a facet of Pompeii’s history rather than the sole focus, it does include a multimedia room where visitors can experience what the different phases of the eruption would have looked like, from tremors to billowing columns of ash and the final deadly pyroclastic clouds. Included in this part of the exhibit are plaster casts of the contorted and calcified bodies of the inhabitants, as well as glass bottles distorted and partially melted from the heat.

This exhibit has something to offer to all, whether they’re remotely curious or deeply interested. It serves as a good introduction to Pompeii for anyone who knows little or nothing past its fiery destruction and wants to learn more about how its inhabitants lived.
Pompeii will be on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until Sept. 5, 2016.

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