Thursday, May 23, 2013

At last, Pompeii -- and a giveaway!

And . . . we’re back!  

Representin’ Boston Strong at the British Museum 
the day after the second bomber was caught.

Remember how my last post said I’d be back in a week with a look at the new Pompeii exhibition and my first ever giveaway? No? Well, that’s because it was, like, six weeks ago.  Sorry to have been gone so long, but things have been a little crazy in the Monkey Strums house. Since we last spoke, I had a birthday, obsessed over Boston, landed an exciting new job, survived a nasty case of shingles (!!), and have nearly completed a two-week stint as a volunteer curatorial assistant at the Museum of London. Whew!  

My husband was full of wonderful Ur-related birthday surprises!  He gave me a copy of Max Mallowan’s memoirs (yes!) and tracked down a copy of Katharine Woolley’s Adventure Calls at the British Library (double yes!!).  Both will be making appearances in future posts.

Though the blog was neglected for a few weeks, I’m very happy that I was still able to make time for the Museum. I attended some exciting lectures, saw a fabulous demonstration of ancient Roman hairstyling (courtesy of seriously talented ladies from Greasepaint Make-up School) at a special Pompeii-themed Friday Lates, and even made it to a Pompeii-inspired mosaic workshop where talented people made things that look kinda like THIS, and I made something that looks like this:

Jason works with zebrafish, so I made this for him.  
Here it is proudly displayed in his lab, though he told me 
“people will probably think my niece made it or something.”

Oh, well.  

And I finally saw the famous Gayer-Anderson cat, which has returned to the Museum after being out on loan since before I moved to London.

We’ll definitely write her up soon.  

But now, without further ado, let’s take a look at what is arguably the most exciting thing happening at the Museum right now: Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum!  

The other “most exciting” contender, Ice Age Art, recently had its run extended to June 2, so you have a little extra time to see if you haven’t yet (and, BTW, what’s keeping you!?).

Life and Death is the Museum's major exhibition for 2013 and, wow, it is really something to see. As I noted waaaay back in my last post, the exhibition provides an almost uncomfortably intimate look at life in the Bay of Naples circa 79 AD. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius preserved items ranging from food to art, many in marvelous condition, which the Museum has used to great effect, creating the sensation of walking through a recent past rather than one two thousand years ago.

Paul Roberts, exhibition curator and head of the Museum’s Roman collections, will give several “curator’s introduction” talks during the run of the show, and I was fortunate to attend the first on April 6. What follows is a brief overview of that excellent talk alongside my personal experience of the exhibition.

Now, before we go any further, I should mention that I don’t have many photos in this post because photography is not allowed in the exhibition (BOO!!), and I’m a big copyright nerd who doesn’t like stealing photos. I do provide links when I can, and if you want to see more, I recommend the Museums’ Highlight Objects page, this very nice BBC slideshow, and the Museums’ AMAZING exhibition companion app for iPhone, iPad, or Android (seriously, the app is really good, and you should download it right now). OR, you can enter my giveaway for a chance to win a lovely book of exhibition photos of your very own!  (Details below . . .)

Anyhoo . . . Roberts began his talk by noting that Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is the first major exhibition of these cities in the British Museum and the first in London in nearly 40 years. He spoke charmingly of attending the 1976 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts with his mother and of how it helped inspire his lifelong love of ancient Rome.  

He then asked how many audience members over the age of 35 first heard of Pompeii in the context of Up, Pompeii!, and there was much appreciative laughter from the British crowd, though I had no idea what he was talking about. For my fellow Americans, it would seem that Up, Pompeii! was a 1980s sex farce set in pre-eruption Pompeii and played out over a TV series and subsequent movies. Apparently, half its charm was simply how awful it was. See for yourself in this YouTube clip:  


Moving along, Roberts happily noted that the exhibition has been well received in the press, with 5-star reviews from The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times, and it has been praised for its melding of archaeology with art history -- a cross-disciplinary approach for which London is apparently becoming known. Roberts also pointed out one less-academically minded review from The Sun, which reviewed Life & Death under the headline “Rompy Pompeii.” (Translating again for my American friends: The Sun = The New York Post and rumpy pumpy = British slang for particularly saucy sex.)

Roberts said that Life and Death is the first exhibition to put Pompeii and the smaller city of Herculaneum on equal footing as well as the first to focus on life in the home. He talked about how the exhibition’s greatest joy -- and indeed the greatest joy of the Pompeii and Herculaneum excavations -- is the light shone on the lives of ordinary people. History is, of course, generally written by and about elites, so we end up knowing a lot about kings and rulers but very little about how the vast majority of people lived. The preserved remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum give us a window into ordinary lives that was not available prior to their excavation.  

The Average Roman

So, who were these “average” Romans? Interestingly, more than half of them were slaves or freedmen, and not all were the downtrodden lot you would expect. At the time of the eruption, slaves were becoming freedmen with greater frequency and were rising in the ranks as business people, property owners, and even full Roman citizens.

The fantastically named Mammius Maximus, a Herculaneum freedman who became an important city benefactor, poses in the toga of a Roman citizen. This bronze statue stood in the city's theater and will be greeting visitors to the British Museum for the duration of Life and Death.  

Women, too, played a larger role than we may expect. Though they were not eligible for citizenship, they did own property and businesses and could accumulate wealth through their own efforts or by inheritance. The exhibition features a gorgeous statue of one such woman, a priestess named Eumachia who used her inherited wealth to erect a building on the Pompeii Forum and dedicate it in her own name. The relatively high status of women and ex-slaves, Roberts said, shows a society in transition, one in which older social roles were breaking down and at least some members of historically oppressed groups were finding social mobility that had not been possible before.  

After a brief look at the lively shops, pubs, and other public spaces these people shared, Roberts moved on to the heart of the exhibition: daily life in the cities’ wealthy homes. The focus on stately homes does not mean, however, that the exhibition explores only the privileged -- these grand mansions housed not only the principal family but their slaves, possibly freedmen, and sometimes even business associates who all lived together as extended family. The exhibition is divided into the rooms typically found in these estates, and each room is given its own gallery within the larger exhibition.

Icundus, Lucius Caecilius Icundus

The exhibition -- and Roberts’s talk -- starts in the atrium, which we are told is the place where the outside world and the home meet. This is a room to entertain and impress guests -- a grand space, often housing rainwater pools, lush mosaics, a religious altar, a display of the family silver, and sculpture and portraiture honoring the ancestors (though this was probably more about showing off your blue blood than actually honoring anyone).  

Roberts highlighted several atrium items in his talk.  My favorite is the bronze bust of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, a Pompeii banker who looked like Daniel Craig might if he’d had a considerably harder life.  

OK, so these photos are stolen, but I think you’ll agree it was worth it.  
Also, scrolling through countless photos of Daniel Craig to find the one that worked best 
is not the worst thing I’ve done today.  

The bust rests on a marble podium (together they're called a herm) that hilariously -- at least to my modern eyes -- has bronze male genitalia stuck to the front at just the right distance from the head, as though the essence of the entire man is reduced to his head and penis. (Insert your own joke here.)

The bust is interesting for at least three reasons (that’s three reasons in addition to the penis and the Daniel Craig thing, so I guess it’s actually interesting for at least five reasons). First, though the sculpture was found in Lucius's home, the dedication chiseled into the podium indicates that the work was commissioned by one of his former slaves, perhaps as thanks for being granted his freedom, thus vividly illustrating the upward mobility of freedmen at this time.  Second, the depiction of Lucius is unflinchingly realistic right down to the enormous growth on his right cheek, which I imagine tells us something about the beauty attitudes of the day. Finally, Roberts tells us that Lucius is the star of the Cambridge Latin Course, so you may already know him quite well if that was your introduction to Latin. (As for me, I’m an Ecce, Romani gal.  My teacher spent so long on the first chapter that twenty-three years later I can still recite the insipid first paragraph.  “Ecce.  In pictora est puella nomine Cornelia. Cornelia est puella qui in Italia habitat . . . “)  

Another fascinating find from Lucius’s atrium is a relief sculpture depicting the earthquakes that rocked the cities 17 years before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. These were early warning signs that the volcano was active, though no one understood that at the time.  

In the Bedroom

From the atrium, Roberts moved to the cubiculum, which is essentially the bedroom. It was a place for sleeping, dressing, and sex. Oh, so much sex! Much of the cubiculum artwork demonstrates what we already knew to be true -- namely that the ancient Romans were simply not as hung up about sex as we are. Several erotic frescoes are on display and we are told that they were not considered shocking in their day. In my favorite, a nude couple is engaged in an amorous encounter as a slave waits in the background. The exhibit tells us that slaves were a part of their master’s lives “even during the most intimate moments.”  I should say so.

Other cubiculum items included a wooden cradle from Herculaneum that has been carbonized by the heat (apparently Mary Beard scandalized the archaeological world by giving it a good rock in a documentary film about the exhibition). There is also a lot of jewelry on display, and Roberts tells us that, just like today, rich women wore solid gold jewelry while the less wealthy wore gilded versions of the same styles. Ancient Roman society was, like ours, “a consumer society where everyone wanted to have the same things.”  

Bring Your Goat to the Garden Party

Next, we turn to the garden at the center of the house -- an idea Roberts says the Romans invented. This was a place for relaxation and experiencing nature within the home. The exhibition has a lovely recreation of a garden from Pompeii, having basically transported the entire room -- frescoes and all -- to the Museum.  

The gardens featured bronze sculptures, many of frogs, rabbits, and other small animals, that are indistinguishable from the garden decorations we see today. Some of them were attached to plumbing so that they gurgled running water -- an important sign of wealth. Houses may not have had running water in the bath or kitchen in 79 AD, but they did have running water in the garden.

I'm terribly sorry, dear readers, but I have to mention that the garden gallery is where you will find the infamous erotic goat statue.  And, believe it or not, there’s more than one erotic goat out there !!! While he is in the Museum’s collection, he sadly is not part of the exhibition. This second, lesser erotic goat is a copy created by a 19th century British sculptor who saw the original while touring Italy and apparently thought, “I gotta make me one of them erotic goat statues.”  
You can see it in the Life and Death exhibition catalogue if you must.  

The Kitchen Toilet

Next, we’re off to the Roman kitchen, which it turns out, was an absolutely disgusting affair.  Roberts explained that because there was no knowledge of germs or cross-contamination at that time, the Roman approach was to put all the home’s “messy” functions in one place, and so the kitchen cook top was frequently located right next to the family toilet drain. Ewwww. Toilets weren’t just for human waste but were the repository for all household garbage, and so they’ve made a rich source for excavators. One funny observation is that there are lots of hand-held oil lamps found in the toilets, apparently lost by people fumbling to answer the call of nature in the dark of night.  

Related to the kitchen is, of course, dining.  The excavation of dining items at Pompeii and Herculaneum has been very important in corroborating the stories told about Roman feasts in the art of the period. Roberts pointed out that the fabulous dinner parties depicted in Roman frescoes could very well be interpreted as fantasy, but finds in Pompeii and Herculaneum -- ranging from extravagant serving items to dining furniture designed for eating while reclining -- give evidence that the decadent entertaining depicted in Roman art was a reality.  

. . . and Death

Having made a good study of the Roman home, Roberts and the exhibition move on to examine the horrific destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The eruption of Vesuvius was fast and violent, and both towns were completely destroyed in the space of a day. Roberts gave a nightmarish account of the cities’ final hours. He told of people taking refuge in their homes when the eruption started only to later discovered they were sealed inside by the weight of volcanic stone and ash piled against their doors. In Herculaneum, hundreds fled to the shore hoping to escape by sea, only to die unsheltered on the beach. Roberts told a moving story of a little girl's body found carrying a large number of good luck charms, which she must have hoped would lead her to safety. Even two-thousand years hence, the stories are difficult to hear, but they are of course why we’re here -- the suddenness of the eruption, the thickness of the smothering ash, and the horrible heat are what preserved these objects and made the exhibition --- and much of what we know about Roman life -- possible.  

Roberts, the exhibition, and pretty much everything written about the show make it very clear that Life and Death is intended to be very much about life, and I have to agree that it is. Yet I can’t help thinking that the shock of the body casts on display at the exhibition’s end may mean that “death” will be the primary takeaway for many viewers.  

The casts are impressive and they are haunting. Roberts explained that as the bodies of Pompeii decayed, they left voids in the surrounding ash. Archaeologists eventually worked out that you can pour plaster into these voids and create casts of the victims' bodies at the time of their deaths.

Now, I consider myself pretty tough in this regard -- I delight in skeletons and mummies as much as the next museum nerd, and I’m practically in morbid love with the crushed, headdressed skull of our Ur human sacrifice victim. But this is different. Unlike somewhat abstract mummified or skeletal remains, these casts capture unvarnished, unsanitized, violent death. Some of the casts are surprisingly detailed, and the victims are captured in apparent agony. The Museum offers, somewhat reassuringly, that these people died very quickly and their horrifying postures are often the result of their tendons contracting posthumously from the extreme heat. OK, fair enough. But then we are shown a family of four -- a mother, father, and two small children -- who died cowering under a staircase. The mother is crumpled on her back with her toddler sitting upright on her belly with his arms raised, and we are told the little one has been forever captured “clawing at the walls.” I mean, holy shit, British Museum! At this point in the exhibition, a good number of people are walking around with their eyes wide and their hands over their mouths while parents usher their children quickly past. This isn’t a criticism -- I don’t know how you talk about Pompeii and Herculaneum without talking about their horrific end, and these body casts are undeniably an important addition to the story. But I do think it might be a bit much to expect the average viewer to leave the exhibition feeling that she has just viewed a celebration of life after seeing such horrors. That being said, I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage adults from attending -- it’s nothing the average person can’t handle -- but I don’t think I’d be comfortable taking a young child. You have been warned.

After the body casts, the exhibition ends rather abruptly with a few more busts and this poignant quote:

". . . In a future generation, when crops spring up again, 
when this wasteland regains its green, 
will men believe that cities and people lie beneath?  
That in days of old their lands lay closer to the sea?  
Nor has that fatal summit ceased to threaten."  
Statius Silvae 4.4.78, AD 90s

Luckily, our post doesn’t end so abruptly or on such a sad note: to celebrate Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, I’m hosting my first-ever blog giveaway! 


Up for grabs is this lovely little picture book, Art in Pompeii and Herculaneum, published by the British Museum as a companion to the exhibition (check it out in the Museum’s online shop here!).  The petite 176-page volume is packed with 130 gorgeous, artsy photos of items from the exhibition. It’s currently on sale at the Museum for £6.99 (~$10), and with a little luck it can be yours!  

Contest Rules & Details

Entering couldn't be easier; just email your name and hometown to with “I want to win the Pompeii book!” in the subject line. You can then get up to two additional entries by (1) following Monkey Strums the British Museum on Facebook and (2) following @monkeystrums on Twitter, but you have to send the email entry or the other two won’t count (this isn’t because I’m going to spam you, because I absolutely won’t -- it’s just to help me stay organized). I’m keeping the contest open until June 1. On June 2, I’ll compile all the entries, assign each a number, and choose a winner with a random number generator. If you’re the winner, I’ll email you for your address and send you your prize. If you don’t respond to my address request within 7 days, I’ll pick a new winner. As it should be in all things, my decision will be final. FYI, I’m happy to ship worldwide, but if you live outside the UK, you might get your prize on the slow boat. Also, I’m going to announce the winner’s first name and hometown on the blog, so please be OK with that if you’re going to enter.  

So, does all that make sense? Awesome! Send your entry to -- you have until June 1, and I can’t wait to hear from you!  

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