04 April 2013
Exhibition review - Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, British Museum, Monday 1st April 2013
Ah, late summer. The fruit is ripening in the orchard, the vines are heavy with grapes, the goats are bleating lazily on the hillside, and down on the beach the fishing boats are landing with that morning’s catch of lobsters, shrimps and more types of fish than you can shake a stick at. All’s right with the world. And then the local mountain goes off bang and before you know it you’re being prodded by Mary Beard and all your personal bits and bobs are being stared at by thousands of people at the British Museum.
The fascination with Pompeii and Herculaneum endures because they give us a unique snapshot of a vibrant, bustling society caught at a moment in time. Millions make the journey to Pompeii every year and return home hot, knackered, dusty, footsore, sunburned and more than slightly bewildered about what all the fuss is for. Because lets face it, Pompeii is dead. There is little there to give you the feeling that people – real people – once trod those cobbled streets and lived in those ruined houses, eating, cooking, arguing with the neighbours, laughing, dealing with the laundry, buying a new bit of furniture, planning a party or taking a bath. Its only when all your everyday bits and bobs are collected together again that it really becomes possible for other people to relate to your everyday life and realise that yes, you were once like us. That is what Pompeii lacks – a sense of real life. If your home was suddenly buried under 30 feet of volcanic ash and miraculously preserved for 2000 years, what would bring it to life for people poking round it would be the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, the open book face down on the table to mark your place, the stray sock that had eluded the washing machine, the picture that you never got around to hanging propped up against the wall - the stupid, pointless, everyday, banal details of daily life. The life you once lived in Pompeii is here in London at the moment, and we are all staring at your pile of dirty dishes and thinking “you were just like us”. And that’s what makes this exhibition so moving.
The exhibition is cleverly arranged to represent the rooms in your house that hot August (or was it October?) afternoon. Outside in the public street are displayed the tools of the tradesmen you passed every day – the brewer, the fishmonger, the carpenter, your wife’s hairdresser - along with the stone tablet that hung like an tiny inn sign from the wall, marking the edge of your property and forever bearing witness to that time you argued with your neighbour about who exactly had responsibility for sweeping that bit of path. Invite us in – we want to poke around. Yes, we will be careful of the dog. Who’s a good boy den? Who’s a woofles den? No, its fine, its only bleeding a little bit.
Here in the atrium – the “display” area of your home, its quite dark, with the only direct light coming through the hole in the roof and reflecting off the rectangular pool of water – I think you called it an impluvium? There is a tasteful mosaic floor – the bit directly inside the door shows a picture of the dog tied up outside it. You liked your silly jokes just like us, didn’t you? That’s a portrait of you and your wife, isn’t it? Very nice. Lovely. Very lifelike. A very handsome couple you make. I bet you must have had to stand still for hours while the mosaic-maker chappie did that.
That’s a very impressive herm standing in front of the pool – Lucius Caeciluis Iucundus, isn’t it? I recognised him immediately by that enormous wart on his cheek. Its very realistic – but I don’t ever remember Lucius walking around with his knackers hanging out on display. Oh, I remember you telling me – that’s apparently an invocation of good luck for the household. There’s a bit of window glass – a rare and valuable thing in your day and one we take so much for granted now. Perhaps this is why nobody seems to be giving it much attention, even though it is made out of a single sheet of transparent mica. And a little chest, with a drawer and two doors that open to show a single shelf. No doubt you kept important bits of paper and things in it once – or maybe just odd bits of string, a spare door key and some dried rose petals wrapped in a scrap of cloth. What a shame that the heat of the blast carbonised it completely; I expect it was quite pretty once, if a bit utilitarian by your standards. Why does the sight of it bring a slight lump to my throat? I suppose its because we’ve got one almost exactly the same (OK, its not burnt, but otherwise its exactly the same). You had the carpenter make it for you, we bought it flatpacked from IKEA, but its exactly the same design. Your furniture looked like ours. We were the same. I don’t like the fact that all your labels are in such small type and stuck well below eye level, as usual. Nor that they are written in such Lowest Common Denominator terminology that the curtainhook in the shape of the prow of a boat is labelled “in the shape of the prow (the front) of a ship”. I suppose I’m lucky that its not described as “the pointy bit” If it’s OK with you, I’ll take the mosaic of Fido home with me. Put it to one side for a bit while I wander round your bedroom. Glad you’ve hidden all the dirty laundry away.
That’s a lovely lampstand you have there. Wonderful bit of craftsmanship, and exactly what I would have expected a Roman lampstand to look like. Oh look, the bits screw apart so you can store it away when you don’t need it. Clever. Do you find bronze difficult to keep clean? I’ll take it with me – stand it in the atrium next to the mosaic. It’s very dark in here now, isn’t it? Oh shit, I’ve kicked something. Oh. Shit. Literally. Well, fancy keeping your chamber pots there. My fault for making you move the lamp. And now we’ve woken the baby.
In 2000 years time this will be the only known example in the world of a Roman baby’s cradle, probably because once you had no further use for it, you gave it away to someone who needed one, just like we do. Or chucked it away. Or took it apart and used the wood for something else. Well, its only a cradle, right? And I’m sure that the first thing you did when the ash started to fall was take the baby out of it………Oh. Oh Christ. I’m really sorry. Truly I am. Look, don’t cry.
Come out into the hortus for a breath of fresh air. There’s much more light out here and the air isn’t so full of lamp fumes What a lovely hortus – so many lovely flowers and statues. I’m not sure I like those ones ranged up against the wall – “The Dancers” you call them? Well, they would have looked much more effective stood in a ring around the fountain. . Pretty that. I expect the piping cost an awful lot of money. We’ll be able to see the bits of bronze piping and the stopcock in 2000 years time in a glass case but for now I’ll just admire the fine carving of the marble bowl and be satisfied. The fluting is very, very fine. Lovely. And the sound of the water splashing is so pleasant and cooling in this heat.
Its clever that the shape of the bowl is echoed so well by that second one. That one. The one with the pigeon sitting on it. Oh, that’s clever. It’s a garden fresco – and there was me thinking it was a big window cut into the wall showing another garden area behind it. It looks so lifelike, it had me fooled completely. We still grow all these flowers and plants today, you know. Let me see – rose, daisy, ivy, poppy, laurel, oleander, screw pine, arbutus, viburnum.
And on that one, that thrush – very possibly the most famous thrush in all history – seems to be perching on the bamboo support that the rose is climbing up. Hang on – bamboo? That’s an oriental plant, surely? Which means that your people must have known about China? And that someone had been there and brought back a bamboo plant? Can we sit down for a second while I think about this?
On that seat by that statue of a goat……. Oh. Its not a goat. Well – it is a goat, but not only a goat. There’s Pan. With the goat. Er….. with the goat. Er…..yes. Um. No, I don’t know why I’m blushing, I’m sure its perfectly natural that Pan is such good friends with the goat and I’m sure that its very commonplace for you to have such things in your garden because after all Pan is the god of - erm,. goats and stuff and its only my modern sensibilities that are making it seem in any way unusual or at all embarrassing to some people. It caused a terrible fuss in The Telegraph. Still, its beautifully carved. And Pan is quite a big chap, isn’t he? In the bedroom equipment department – or should that be the stable equipment?
You know, now I look at it properly, it does look very sensual – almost as if Pan is about to kiss the goat. And the goat doesn’t exactly seem to be struggling, does he? Sorry, she. I suppose its not every goat that gets to be ravished by a God. Yes. Very - unusual. Um. Shall we go in?
This is what we’ll call the living room, or the lounge, or the front room in 2000 years time. Yes, it is a bit dull really – a bit formal-looking with all those examples of frescoes on the walls. Seen one fresco, seen them all, really. Mind you, I like the fact that there are examples of several completely different styles hanging next to each other to explain evolving fashions in wall covering. You were just like us – forever changing your home, forever updating, forever looking at wallpaper samples. Wallpaper. Its – well – paper that you hang on the wall, in the future. Yes, I suppose it is quite difficult to look at samples of fresco. You can hardly sit there leafing through a pattern book while drinking your tea, can you? The bits would fall off. Tea. It’s a drink, made from the dried leaves of a plant in the future. You pour hot water on it and add sugar and milk. Sugar. It’s a plant – oh never mind. Do you mind if we don’t look at any more frescoes? I’m sure that everyone in the future finds them just as dull as I do, like looking at historic bits of wallpaper. That marble carving is interesting. Why are the buildings in it leaning over? Oh, it shows an earthquake. Do you get many of them around here? No, I wouldn’t say that it was pretty, exactly. Interesting. Prescient.
I love that mosaic with all the sea creatures on it. I see you’ve got it where it should be, as part of the floor, whereas in the future it will be hanging on a wall in a frame. Yes, I agree, pretty pointless, but easier to stand in front of and look at. It really proves just how rich your diet was in seafood. All those different species. I like the lobsters particularly. So lifelike. Can I take it with me? Put it in the atrium next to the lampstand and the dog mosaic. Oh, I forgot to choose something from the hortus.I can’t really make up my mind between the fresco with the thrush on it or the naughty goat statue, but the rules of the game don’t allow me to take more than one thing from each room. Oh, ok, the naughty goat statue, just for the sake of a bit of shock value and to upset the Telegraph readers.
Kitchen this way? Why is the toilet in here? Isn’t that a bit dangerous? We would throw up our hands in horror in the future if we found a toilet in the kitchen. Well, because you can’t take a dump in the room that food is prepared in, it will make you ill. You didn’t know that back then? Is that why so many of your kitchens have good luck charms all over the place? Perhaps you should spread the word round about washing your hands properly. Because of germs. Germs. Little tiny animals that spread illness. So small you can’t see them. Really.
Well, I recognise most of your food. A loaf of bread, somewhat burned, but still very recognisably and obviously bread. I suppose your baker didn’t have time to stop and take the loaves from the oven when the sky began to fall. And so they stayed in the oven for 2000 years. Its round, marked into sections. Tear and share.
And dishes of figs and dates and nuts and pomegranates and poppy seeds – all ripe. So it couldn’t have been August, more like mid to late September or even October. And a big glass jar with a cork stopper, still with the dregs of olive oil clinging to the inside. But you were like us – you enjoyed your food, and you didn’t mind shelling out for good ingredients now and again. How amazing that, after all this time we could (if we were allowed) uncork the bottle, put it to our lips and taste the oil made from the olives all those many centuries ago.
What a beautiful, beautiful colander. Just like the ones we have in 2000 years time, even if ours are not nearly so decorative. Nor made of bronze. But why shouldn’t something utilitarian still be beautiful to look at? Something like that was obviously a real pleasure to use.
And this is the drain that runs under your kitchen floor into the common sewer under the street? And here’s a display of things that you threw into the drain. Plates and dishes that someone made, someone else bought, used for a while, dropped and broke, scooped up and dropped them down the drain in order to be rid of them. And other things too, that you dropped in the street and that rolled away from your grasping fingers and disappeared from sight into the sewer while you stood there and cursed, or which fell from your pocket unnoticed and were kicked by an sandaled, unheeding foot, never to be seen again – or so you thought. A small oil lamp in the shape of an eagle, a tiny votive statue of a mother cradling a baby and which we now call “The Lady of the Drain”. Perhaps the owner was pregnant and on her way to the temple to offer the statue on the altar in exchange for the safe delivery of the child. a silent, desperate plea for clemency. Or perhaps the child had already been born and was sick, and this was a gift to the god of healing –, a trade for all those weary, frightened hours of gently rocking a cradle by the light of a flickering oil lamp and the prayers which lacked the power to heal. We’ll never know.
How you must have panicked when you got to the temple and found the statue was no longer in its wrapping, how you must have desperately retraced your steps through the crowded streets, scanning the road, worrying that the gods had truly turned their faces away from you. The child would have died anyway, that autumn afternoon, but you didn’t know that. We know, and it’s the broken plates and the tiny lamp and the little statue that bring home the fact that you were once like us, you had your little culinary accidents while your mind was occupied with bigger things, you threw things away and thought no more of them, you lost them and thought of them constantly and missed them and shared the news of their loss through your tears. It’s the broken plates and the tiny lamp and the little statue that make me pause and swallow the lump that rises to my throat and shout at you down the years that you should pack up your things and run, before its too late and the sky turns dark.
I've stopped choosing things to take home. Put them back - they don't belong to me. They belonged to you.
And now, around this corner, are the things you tried to take with you at the last moment. Things that were found in the boathouse, down by the shore as you crouched in the darkness with your family, your friends, your slaves, the people from the house across the street. Things that we will find among your bones. A display of things marked “Choices – objects useful, valuable or simply cherished, carefully gathered or quickly grabbed; things that represent choices made in those few terrifying, uncertain hours”. A large oil lamp with shades made from transparent horn, which you grabbed to light your way through the dark streets leading down to the bay. A fistful of small change – the day’s takings from someone’s business. A wooden tablet, the writing on it long gone. What did it say? Why was it so important to you that you sought it out, took it from its hiding place and ran with it down to the shore? Did it prove you were no longer a slave? Was it the deed to your home, your business? Proof of your marriage? A good luck charm, which brought you no luck. A valuable pair of earrings – maybe a wedding gift. The key to your front door, slammed and locked behind you in the panic to keep your things safe until your return, a key that would never be used again, a key for a door that no longer exists, a door that you used a dozen times a day, a door that squeaked on its hinges and that you kept meaning to get fixed. A door that slammed shut as the ashes fell.
And finally, here are you.
Buried in solidified ash, your body rotted, leaving an empty shape. The shape of you. Sitting there – crying, coughing, weeping, praying, regretting the things said and the things unsaid, who knows? Only you. And there the rich woman, with the golden hair clasp, the bangle, the rings, the bag of coins. And here a family, perhaps your neighbours, perhaps strangers. Husband, wife, children. Thinking, hoping, praying that in the tiny cupboard underneath the stairs they were safe from the terror that fell from the sky.