Pompeii: Lost and Found

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class, from HowStuffWorks.com.

Katie: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sara: And I'm Sara Dowdy.

Katie: And Atlanta has been besieged by rain for what feels like something around 45 days, but it's really only been two weeks.Sara:

Two weeks is long enough for meKatie: And everything is flooding. But you know what's worse than flooding Sara?

Sara: I think I have an idea.

Katie: Being rained on with volcanic ash, which is what, happened to Pompeii in A.D. 79. Pompeii was founded by the Oscans in the sixth or seventh century B.C., we're really not sure. It was near Naples in the region of Campania. It was very fertile. Lots of olives and grain and sheep! Sara and I are very fond of sheep.

Sara: We like sheep.

Katie: And it was Greek for awhile, but the Rome took over in about 290 B.C., and they rebelled in 90 BS but Sulla beat them and they became part of the Roman Empire.

Sara: But by 79 A.D. Pompeii is this bustling cosmopolitan port city. It has extremely fertile soil, which unfortunately is because its built under a freaking volcano. But it's good for agriculture while it lasts, ya know? They have an aqueduct that supplies fountains in the city and homes, the wool industry because of the sheep. Everything's going really nice. They have vineyards. I like this not a lot. Plenty of the elder said that Pompeian wine gives you a really bad hangover.

Katie: So none of that for us.

Sara: So take it easy on the Pompeian wine. But there start to be some warning signs around this time that Mt. Vesuvius is starting to be active again. There's a huge earthquake 17 years earlier, and actually at the time of the volcano explosion, the town hasn't even quite recovered from this earthquake.

Katie: No, they're still rebuilding.

Sara: And in the year of the volcano, there's a small earthquake and the wells go dry. And the animals are reported to be acting strangely.

Katie: And the people notice strange waves in the ocean that they're not used to seeing. So there's an undercurrent of something that's not quite right going on.

Sara: So this brings us to August 24th in the year 79, which is the year everything starts to go down. And we know a lot about what happened on the day of the explosion because of an account written by Pliny the younger to his friend some years afterward. He wrote that he saw "a cloud of unusual size and appearance, which reminded him of a pine tree for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk, and then split off into branches." And what he was describing actually is later termed a Plinian Eruption, which is a huge column of gas and ash that's shot up into the stratosphere by an enormous volcano eruption, such as this one with Mt. Vesuvius.

Katie: So August 24th, a column of smoke appears above the mountain, and people are uneasy because ash and pumice starts falling on Pompeii. And a bunch of people get the hell out of town.

Sara: 80 percent of the people try to make it. That's not to say all of them survive, but the people who are taking this as a bad sign, ash and pumice falling, leave.

Katie: The column grows to 18 miles high and blocks out the sun. And there are neighboring cities around here too that are noticing, and it's not just Pompeii, even though that's what you usually hear about. You've also got Herculaneum, and - what are the others?

Sara: I don't know if I'm pronouncing this one right, Stabae and Torea and Anciada, among other little tiny towns. So there's a lot going on in this immediate area.

Katie: So the ash and pumice are still falling, and they're falling deeper. People are watching this column grow, and more people start grabbing their jewelry and their belongings and trying to flee the city, but at this point, it's too late.

Sara: Yeah, because by nightfall, the shower of ash and pumice has gotten denser and deadlier and it covers the city nine feet deep, which collapses roofs and some of the bodies later discovered are found sheltering under a stairwell that's collapsed on them. So a lot of people are dying in their homes by now, or if they're out in the street, dying just suffocated by the ash or burned by it.

Katie: You can imagine it would be hard to breathe in a bunch of ash and pumice.

Sara: But then the worst part is still yet to come on the morning of the 25th.

Katie: Which is when the column collapses and a surge of incredibly hot gas and rocks hits Herculaneum first. People are killed instantly from the thermal shock. It's 1,000 degree heat. It melts the skin and the muscles from their bodies and it's just skeletons left. They didn't even have time to react. There are no facial expressions or anything. Everybody's just buried.

Sara: Yeah, an earlier eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Avelino, about 2,000 years before this one, had winds at 900 Fahrenheit and at 240 miles per hour of this suffocating ash. It makes your brain boil and your flesh is vaporized and your blood is vaporized and they meld with this volcanic ash to make a concrete or plaster like coating on your bones.

Katie: The ground water in Herculaneum helped too, that's why some of it was preserved. And this was just the first surge. There were multiple surges to follow. Herculaneum ends up being buried in 75 feet of volcanic debris. Herculaneum is completely buried, but Pompeii is not. There are still surges left to hit it, and lapuli and ash are still falling and burning Pompeian's in their home. A lot of them are suffocating because no one can breathe anymore.

Sara: The first surge to hit Pompeii basically kills anyone who's left in the city, but it's followed by these subsequent surges that continue to coat the city, but everyone is dead by then.

Katie: And even some people who managed to get outside the city walls were hit by the pyroclastic surge. It's the volcano's first surge, but it's the first one to hit Pompeii which is the next morning. This whole thing lasted 19 hours.

Sara: So at the end of it all, Pompeii is buried under pumice stones and ash 19 to 23 feet, which is bad for trying to rebuild the city. Emperor Titus declared it an emergency zone and offered funds. It's all very modern sounding. Offered funds to help with cleanup and recovery, but there's not anything you can really do about a city buried under 23 feet of ash. So it's quickly forgotten.

Katie: And lost.

Sara: That fertile soil covers it and people start farming eventually, and no one really thinks about Pompeii. It disappears from the map.

Katie: For about 1700 years, until the late 16th century when an architect named Domenico Fontana discovers some of the ruins.

Sara: And work at these archeological sites at Pompeii and Herculaneum actually ends up being sort of the start of modern archeology and some of the techniques we think about of modern archeologists with the grid system and the little tools, and methodically charting and removing artifacts. It didn't necessarily always go like that. In fact, the early digging was pretty haphazard, and it wasn't until the 1860s when an Italian archeologist named Giuseppe Firoelli became the director and really kind of tightened up the operation.

Katie: Before that people had just been taking things, like taking artwork and cutting off frescos and then framing it and sticking it in their living room, like, "Hey, look what I got from Pompeii."

Sara: The Queen of Naples helped sponsor the digs because she wanted some nice ancient statuary for her home. So it was just kind of free cool ancient stuff for the picking. Really intense excavation resumed after World War II, and by 1997 it was declared a World Heritage site.

Katie: And there's actually still lots of Pompeii that hasn't been uncovered. Some of it they want to stay covered in general, but they did find lots of cool stuff when they were looking.

Sara: And they want some of it to stay covered because once it's exposed, obviously its exposed to all of the things it's been protected from for years, whether that's rain or other weather or just tourists walking around.

Katie: And touching things. So remember if you go, that Pompeii is an open air museum, and please stop touching everything.

Sara: So what are some of the cool things they found in Pompeii?

Katie: Well, the coolest thing that we were talking about earlier was the private homes, because a lot of times when a civilization falls or is destroyed, what you'll find are the giant monuments. And they did find some of that in Pompeii.

Sara: Yeah, there are plenty of temples and sports fields, amphitheaters, government buildings.

Katie: Public baths.

Sara: Things you would even find in modern cities because they're what make it 2,000 years, they're what people try to preserve and keep up. But private homes, usually you don't find a 2,000 year old house.

Katie: No. Sara and I were talking about if something happened to Atlanta what they would call our houses, because a lot of these are very descriptive names, like the House of the Golden Bracelet, based on -

Sara: The House of the Silver Wedding.

Katie: What's found in mine would be the Apartment of Cat Hair.

Sara: Mine was unfortunately the House of the Ceiling Mushroom, also due to the rain. So hopefully a volcano doesn't preserve this moment in time.

Katie: But the houses in Pompeii were lovely, especially if you were wealthy, because they had these huge private gardens and courtyards. Really elaborate frescos, some of which were very erotic, which the King of Naples was not happy about. He had them hidden for years and years.

Sara: Yeah, the patron deity of Pompeii was Venus, so it's not too surprising that there were all these suggestive -

Katie: Very fallocentric art.

Sara: But we get a really great record of several centuries worth of domestic architecture from this time, because some of the houses in Pompeii, especially the older, more lavish homes, are about 400 years old when they're destroyed.

Katie: And a lot of them had modern conveniences, which might be surprising. Rooms were heated by hot air running through cavities in the walls, and there were spaces under the floors and hydraulic pumps that gave running water.

Sara: And we also get some nice touches of the not quite so luxurious life. There are little inns catering to lower class clientele. There's graffiti written on a lot of the houses.

Katie: I love the graffiti.

Sara: The graffiti is awesome. I read one thing that read the largely windowless fronts of the houses were like the perfect temptation for graffiti on the streets. But there was all kinds of stuff, little "so and so loves so and so" and a debate between which is better, blondes or brunettes. And even gladiatorial announcements, which one was calling Silidus the Thoreation the ladies choice.

Katie: Well, well, Silidus. It's just really cool because most of that stuff doesn't last. When you're an archeologist you don't often get to see graffiti from the Roman Empire.

Sara: Yeah, but it kind of humanizes the people who lived there.

Katie: And gives you an idea of daily life, which is interesting to people like us. How did people live in 79 A.D.? Now we know.

Sara: So all of this - maybe not so much the Pompeian graffiti - but the fancy houses, the frescos, the mosaics, all of this really influences European taste, much like later archeological excavations in Egypt would. Neoclassical revival kind of comes up, replaces the fali recoco. We even have Marie Antoinette getting her fonte bleu apartment decorated in a Pompeian style.

Katie: And it became part of the quintessential grand tour to go and see Pompeii when you were doing your little European trip. And Vesuvius today is actually still a problem, which we didn't know.

Sara: You might want to think before you make it part of your grand tour today.

Katie: Or if you're thinking of moving to Naples, maybe don't. So Vesuvius is a strato-volcano. It's tall and it's mountainous and it's also on the edge of the Eurasian plate, which collides with the Africa plate quite often.

Sara: And the last enormous Plinain eruption - not quite the size of Pompeii - but the last sizeable eruption was in 1631. And after that there were a few centuries worth of lava streams and just little bits of activity. And the last relatively small eruption was in 1944. But this is kind of the scary part. For the past 25,000 years - and they know this from geological records - Vesuvius has had these catastrophic Plinian eruptions on a scale of Pompeii nearly every 2,000 years. Pompeii was the last major eruption, 80, 79, which - Katie and I were calculating this.

Katie: That's about 2,000 years ago.

Sara: And three million people live in Naples today, and if evacuation was a problem in 80, 79 Pompeii, I can't imagine -

Katie: What it would be like now.

Sara: The scale that would be today. They have drills and emergency procedures in place, and obviously our geology knowledge is a lot more extensive. And hopefully we'd be able to get a sizeable warning. But it's still a rather unsettling thought.

Katie: Something to think about. Vesuvius is monitored around the clock by geologists, but it's still a little scary to think of a modern Pompeii. So don't' be the house with cat hair if you are -

Sara: Get your mushrooms off the ceiling before it's preserved in time.

Katie: So if you'd like to learn more about volcanoes and ancient history, head over to our homepage and check out the blog while you're at it at www.howstuffworks.com.Announcer: For more on this, and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com. Let us know what you think. Send an email to podcast@howstuffworks.com and be sure to check out The Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the How Stuff Works homepage.