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Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum

I am writing this in the train, as we hurtle back to Derby from St Pancras so you’ll understand if the style has a certain lurchy, snoopy tendency to it.

Having recently been to Florence we have been hoping to plan a trip to Pompeii some time, and  were most excited to learn about the plans for the Pompeii and Herculaneum  exhibition, which is on until September at the British Museum. John and I are going in June all being well but I was lucky enough – having already planned one of my fairly regular little jaunts down to London – to be able to attend  a private viewing of the exhibition this morning with our daughter Ruth whose official invitation most generously included me!

What a treat! The exhibition is beautifully mounted, with hundreds of wonderful  relics never before seen in this country or even possibly ever outside Italy. I went round it twice, once during the private viewing and then again, with an audio visual thingy afterwards.

So many things struck me, it’s hard to know what to begin with, but perhaps it is the human element. You feel you are almost intruding on the lives of people going about their daily chores and pleasures  one moment and and in the next  destroyed by the erupting Vesuvius.

Their  ghastly tragedy is our great fortune, because, thanks to the ferocity and nature of the eruption so much was preserved for us to view now, over two thousand years later.

An interesting fact which i had not appreciated is that the two cities were affected in very different ways, and at different times, although equally devastating. Pompeii was covered by several feet of ash and afterwards was revisited by people returning to rescue items and presumably by looters and many centuries later was much easier for archeologists to explore.. Herculaneum was buried much deeper, and hit by a hotter wall burning gas which meant that everything was instantly carbonised, and preserved, but was harder to retrieve.

Another very striking thing I found was how civilised their society was; this is before Christ, when one suspects that in this country people were lagging behind more than somewhat. There was widespread if not mass literacy, slaves were frequently given their freedom, woman had (more or less) equal rights although they were not allowed to vote, trades flourished, houses were and elegant sophisticated and well furnished – apart from their toilet arrangements: apparenty these were normally situated in the kitchen so that human and catering waste could be dealt with simultaneously. They loved their gardens, feasting and entertaining; they had boundary disputes between neighbours, and so on… It all felt quite incredibly ‘normal’.

Which of course makes the tragedy that befell them all the more heart rending. Ironically, in one of the scenes depicting a banquet there is a notice imploring the guests to eat and drink as much as they could , because ‘tomorrow we die’. Little did they know.

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