This article contains images of 2,000 year old human skeletons, as displayed today within Italy's
world-renowned ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Parental/Teacher guidance recommended and
reader discretion advised!
"What will it be like, Mom?" the kids asked. "Will it be beautiful?"
"I'm not sure that 'beautiful' is exactly the right word to use to describe a dead city."
"But didn't you say it was frozen in time?" Little Angel pressed. "That's amazing! How does an entire city get frozen?"
"It got burned by lava from a volcano, don't you remember?" her older brother retorted. "We read all about it at school."
"Actually, Pompeii wasn't exactly burned by volcanic lava," I shook my head. "It was definitely buried by ash and pumice, but the thing that really doomed its inhabitants was something called a pyroclastic surge. A super hot mass of hot gas and rock fragments came rushing down the slopes of Vesuvius incredibly fast... and basically incinerated every living thing. The city itself is still there."
"What's incinerated?" asked Little Angel, frowning.
"Burned," replied her brother, smiling triumphantly.
We'd piled into our little Volkswagen car early in the morning on what would surely be a scorchingly hot day, equipped with sun hats and lots of water, to show our children one of the most important (and best-preserved) ruins in human history... the famous Roman town of Pompeii and its wealthier counterpart, Herculaneum.
"Can you tell us the story again, Mom?" asked Soccer Dude as Señor Aventura navigated us deftly through the crowded streets of Naples. "I want to understand what I am looking at."
"Sure," I agreed, and began to tell them the story with as much detail as I could recall. (I haven't been a history teacher for 20 years for nothing!)
"Today we're going to be looking at two ancient Roman towns, or at least what is left of them. They are called Pompeii and Herculaneum. Each of them was bustling and prosperous until the tragic day nearly 2,000 years ago when all life ground to a sudden, violent halt!
"Were they like this, Mommy?" Little Angel asked, pointing outside toward Naples.
"No, you'll see. They were both a lot smaller than Naples. Pompeii was a decent sized town that had its own theaters, stadiums, restaurants and neighborhoods.
Herculaneum was a lot smaller and more upscale, like a beach resort. Herculaneum was more like the communities of La Jolla or Del Mar, back in the city where we're from in San Diego (California). Small, but elegant and well-maintained."
"Oh," she nodded. "Okay, so then what?"
"Seventeen years earlier there had been a very big earthquake here in Campania (probably a foreshock to the volcano) and citizens of Pompeii and the other local towns were still rebuilding from it. They'd been reconstructing theaters and temples that had sustained serious damage, and generally trying to move forward.
The locals really had no idea what was about to happen to them Even though Vesuvius had erupted before, the last big eruption of the volcano had taken place so far back in the distant past that there was no record of it.
Nobody living at that time knew that Vesuvius was anything other than a very fertile mountain near Pompeii where the best grapes were grown. Lovely villas dotted the mountain and the region was considered to be a fantastic escape for Rome's rich and famous."
"What's fertile?" asked Little Angel.
"It means that the soil was really good for growing things in, like fruits and vegetables," interjected The Scientist.
I continued. "Earthquakes happen a lot around here, so nobody paid much attention to the fact that the ground had been rumbling for days. People continued to plan dinner parties and go out to shows and gladiator fights.
In the days right before the massive eruption there had also been some strange signs that things were not quite right... for example, pets and domesticated animals ran away from their homes, and the local wells and fountains suddenly dried up."
"Doesn't it seem like somebody should have noticed that things weren't normal?" asked Little Angel. "Wouldn't people be surprised and upset that their pets ran away?"
"Maybe they did," I answered, "But we don't know much about that because we have only one eyewitness account of what actually happened... and the person who wrote it wasn't living in Pompeii."
"What happened next?" asked Soccer Dude, intrigued.
"Suddenly, at noon on August 24th, there was a massive explosion - different colors of sand and ash actually rose high into the air. It looked like a huge pine tree in the sky to the folks across the Bay in Misenum who saw it happen. Within an hour, ash from the eruption had completely blocked out the light from the sun!"
"Oh wow," said Soccer Dude. "That must have been kind of freaky for them."
"Did the people in Pompeii escape?" asked The Scientist, even though he already knew the answer.
"When the eruption first began, the people didn't really know what to make of it. Some fled for their lives, and those were the lucky ones. They grabbed their statues of household gods, money and jewels and got the heck out!
Others insisted on staying behind to protect their property, or were unable to leave because they were sick or disabled. They prayed hard to their gods and hoped for protection.
Ash was falling at the rate of about six inches per hour, and at first the people who stayed behind tried to sweep it off of their tile roofs. As time passed, the piling ash got so heavy it began to actually crack the roofs and finally collapsed the second levels of buildings down onto the first levels. That's why we may not see many two-story buildings in Pompeii today.
Twelve hours later a wall of volcanic mud rushed down Vesuvius and covered nearby Herculaneum completely, suffocating that entire town and burying it and all inhabitants that had not already fled alive.
Because the mud came down so fast, many of the buildings of Herculaneum still have their second level intact... and some even have their original wood beams and balconies which did not decay, thanks to the mud which acted as a preservative. Many still have their original paint in vibrant colors on the walls!
Very early the next morning, around 6:30am, a pyroclastic surge rushed down the other side of the mountain toward Pompeii.
Those superheated gases burned the lungs of all remaining inhabitants and killed them instantly! Their bodies were then quickly encased in falling ash, where they remained for the next 1800 years."
The faces of the Aventura children looked grim as they took all of this information in, sitting in the back seat of our car and knowing that they were about to see the ruins of this disaster in just ten minutes.
"The air around the Bay of Naples was thick with ash. People with asthma and other respiratory conditions really struggled to breathe as they tried to escape the disaster. A small tsunami even took place in the Bay at the height of the eruption, leaving sea animals flopping about eruption on the sea floor for everyone to see... and the sky was black even at midday."
"Was it like that even where we are staying?" asked Soccer Dude worriedly. "If it erupted again tonight, would we be okay?"
"Yes, Gioia tells me that we are out of the range of the volcano in Sant'Agata Sui Due Golfi," I assured him. "You'll be fine."
"So what happened?" asked The Scientist. "How did it end?"
"Well, the eruption lasted for a total of two days. During that time Pompeii was buried under a thick layer of volcanic ash. It disappeared from sight. If you hadn't known it was there, you would never have guessed.
Pompeii and Herculaneum, plus a few other local towns, were eventually lost to history, except for two letters written by Pliny the Younger, a historian and statesman who was just a teenager when Vesuvius erupted. He later wrote an eyewitness account of the eruption that had killed his uncle, the famous naval officer and scientist Pliny the Elder.
Pliny the Younger wrote two letters to a famous historian named Tacitus, describing the entire eruption in as much detail as he could give from his vantage point across the bay, and also drawing from reports from family friends about what had happened to his uncle who had died of an asthma attack in Stabiae. That is actually how we know what happened! Without his letters none of these ruins might ever have been found."
"That's really sad," said The Scientist with a frown. "You mean, the Italians might have just built other cities right on top of them?"
"You'd be amazed how often that happens," I replied. "Remember, even Barcelona where we live in Spain is built right on top of an old Roman city."
"Did those people really have to die?" asked Soccer Dude. "If an eruption happened again today, would all the people living here die too?" He looked out the car window and gestured at all of the apartment buildings around our car.
"Well, I think it would be hard to survive that kind of pyroclastic surge at any time in history. We're talking about 400 degree heat! You'd have to evacuate and escape it... because you couldn't withstand it. They say the thermal energy released by the explosion of Mt. Vesuvius was 100,000 times the strength of the atomic bombs they dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II!
Luckily, we have early warning systems in place now that can tell us in advance if there is going to be a volcanic eruption. So, the people of Naples will know they need to evacuate before Vesuvius erupts again."
"Wow." The kids sat in stunned silence for a minute.
"I didn't know all of that," reflected my husband. "That's really interesting."
"How did they find the cities, Mommy?" asked Little Angel. "If they were buried?"
"That's a great question, sweetie. Pompeii and Herculaneum were lost and everyone forgot about them for almost two thousand years. Then in 1738 workmen were digging to lay the foundation for a summer palace for Charles of Bourbon, King of Naples... and they found the ruins of Herculaneum!"
"Oh my gosh! They must have been so amazed!"
"Did they find Pompeii too? At the same time?"
"Well, about 10 years later another excavation, this one led by a man called Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre, discovered Pompeii. The cities lost to Vesuvius weren't lost any more!"
I then described to my children how for nearly 300 years since then, these sites have undergone extensive excavation by archaeologists.
One of the most amazing discoveries during this period was made by Giuseppe Fiorelli and his team of archaeologists and excavators. They discovered a technique that made it possible to preserve the exact form of body shapes as they were discovered in the hardened ash.
"In a street called "Alley of the Skeletons" they discovered hollow areas within the ash. They could see that these hollow areas contained bones. Instead of digging into them to retrieve the bones, they instead filled the cavities with plaster. They allowed the plaster to harden for a few days, and then carefully chipped all of the hardened ash off of it."
"Why did the archaeologists do that?" asked Little Angel curiously.
"They'd found bones before in hollow cavities, and seen the impressions left by body parts in the ash and mud. They had a hunch that if you filled up the empty spaces with plaster, you might get a cast of the living thing whose body had made the space. So, they tried filling up a space... and after they chipped away the plaster what remained stunned everybody! They had created the plaster cast of a Pompeiian citizen that perfectly captured its exact moment of death!
I finished by telling them how smart this technique was, and still is!
"Even now, hundreds of years later, this remains the best method for getting an accurate representation of the dying figures. Over a thousand bodies have been retrieved from the ash in Pompeii, but only 100 of them have been perfectly preserved in cast replicas."
"Are we going to see those bodies, Mom?" asked The Scientist.
"That's really creepy!" announced Soccer Dude. "I want to see them though."
"I think the harder thing to see will be the skeletons at Herculaneum," I replied.
"For a long time archaeologists and historians thought many citizens of Herculaneum might have escaped alive, but right before you were born (I nodded to The Scientist) they discovered piles upon piles of skeletons of people who had hidden in the waterfront boat houses waiting to escape.
About three hundred Romans of all ages had been hiding inside the houses, waiting for the eruption to end... and they were sadly burned alive in an instant by a cloud of superhot gas and ash."
"That's so sad!" sighed Little Angel.
"Yes. It really is. But it's history, and it's important to understand it by seeing it in person, rather than reading about it in a book."
Señor Aventura had just pulled our car Chico Suave into a paid-parking lot right across the street from the ruins of Pompeii. It looked like you could buy anything in this lot, from fake statues to bottles of water, to an Italian lunch; even 50 euro cents per bathroom visit! They were definitely maximizing their location.
"Ready?" my husband asked.
Emerging from our car into the sticky heat of the day, we began to ascend the hill leading to the ancient town.
At the bottom of this post (organized into two groups) I will include more photos taken in Pompeii during our tour with our vivacious tour guide Sandro (and the bevy of British and Eastern European beauties that joined us) and also more from Herculaneum, where we later guided ourselves after lunch.
We'd been recommended to pay for a guide, and it was incredibly worthwhile!
Sandro was an excellent guide to Pompeii... witty, lively and capable of bringing the ancient city back to life with his many colorful anecdotes and jokes. He spent half of his time showing us interesting sights and explaining history, and the other half hitting on one of the ladies on our tour, which made for fun viewing and kept the dead city feeling quite lively!
Watching our three children gently place their hands on walls that were thousands of years old was incredible. There is no way you can learn the sensation of cool stone beneath your fingertips from a book, or smell the inside of a two thousand year old gymnasium!
Their eyes were like saucers as they stuck their heads inside real ancient bakeries and pretended to serve soup from the world's original fast food restaurants.
The highlight of our day? You may get a laugh out of it...
After the guided tour ended and we paid Sandro, the five of us went to stand in the shade along the side of a high wall. The Scientist pulled out his blue Android mobile phone and began to play "Pompeii" by Bastille, a modern pop song and musical artist that are very popular with today's youth in the USA.
As suggested by its lyrics, the five of us closed our eyes. We listened to the words and melody written about Pompeii... standing right in the middle of the city! Then, as the song suggests, we opened them and really looked around at the actual walls of Pompeii all around us, imagining them crumbling down.
We could imagine ourselves there, back in time, on the day of the actual eruption!
Looking down at my arm, I noticed goosebumps had risen on my flesh despite the intense heat of the lunchtime sunshine.
Together we gazed in awe at massive Vesuvius, resting so nonchalantly in the background... and thought about the impressive harm and ruin it had rained down upon innocents. On impulse we held hands and gave thanks that for now, the five of us were still all together and blissfully alive.
This was a long, hot and important day... unforgettable. We wrapped up eight hours spent wandering around both Pompeii and Herculaneum feeling physically exhausted, emotionally drained, and also incredibly grateful for all we'd seen ~ and all that we have!
Life is so delicate and transient, and we are so blessed.
More photos: POMPEII
More photos: HERCULANEUM
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