preservation

Powerful Pompeii

The city of Pompeii was located in the Campania region of Italy, founded by the Oscans around the ninth or eighth century BC. It was built on lava terracing produced over centuries by Mount Vesuvius, about 10 km away, and was a rich and fertile land which helped the development of a thriving agricultural town.

Contact and trade with nearby Greek colonies lead to the adoption of Greek lifestyle and religion in the settlement. The lava terracing on which it was built offered some protection from invasion, but Pompeii was still fought over by the Greeks, Etruscans, and Samnites before finally becoming part of the Roman Empire and formally named Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeii in 80 BC.

1. Postcard

 A postcard of the remains of the garden at the house of Marco Lucrezio Frontone, a nobleman living in Pompeii at the time of the eruption. The garden is rich with ornamentation which includes statues, paintings, pillars and fountains. Ref: 1802.2770.

Pompeii’s population grew to around 20,000 residents, and the economy became so strong it was considered a prestige location with higher status than other Campania towns. The standard of living rose dramatically across most strata of society and the middle class merchants and entrepreneurs competed with the noble families of the town in their displays of wealth. Large and opulent villas, luxurious embellishments and precious ornaments and jewellery displayed the affluence of the town and its inhabitants.

But the peace and prosperity would not last. On 5 February 62 AD a violent earthquake shook the region and devastated much of the city and surrounding countryside. Associated damage included the death of 600 sheep after breathing “tainted air”.  It took a long time to recover from the disaster and buildings were still being repaired and strengthened when the next catastrophe occurred.

On 24 August 79 AD, the previously dormant Mount Vesuvius woke and began one of the most famous eruptions in history. The volcano spewed a massive cloud of debris over 20 km into the air and rained ash, lapilli (loose rock) and lava down over the surrounding towns. Most of the population of nearby Herculaneum and Stabiae were evacuated and many people from Pompeii had left for good, but a significant number had remained in the town.

2. Artifacts from Pompeii

 A needle, ring and brooch recovered from Pompeii. Ref: 1908.2.1-3. 

The eruption continued for several hours before the pyroclastic surges began. These clouds of ash, pumice and gas rolled down the volcano and over the towns, travelling at over 110 km per hour and reaching temperatures over 700ᵒ C, annihilating everyone and everything in the path almost instantly.

By the time the volcano had quietened and the debris settled, an area of around 200 square miles was covered, Pompeii was buried under five metres of ash and lapilli, and thousands of people had died. The landscape had changed so much that there was no visible evidence of the town remaining and in time Pompeii was forgotten.

Explorers rediscovered Pompeii in 1748 and were surprised to find the city remarkably intact, due to the debris being soft ash and lapilli, rather than harder rocks and lava, which destroyed other towns and turned them to stone.

The level of preservation was incredible and allowed a glimpse into the daily life of Pompeiians. Electoral propaganda and risqué jokes were written on walls. Signs above shop doorways advertised the businesses. Foodstuff was still sitting on tables and counters or in storage jars. Artworks and mosaics were very well preserved, providing valuable insight into Roman paintings of which very little was known.

3. Narcissus

A copy of a statue of Narcissus which was found in the ruins of Pompeii. Ref: 1903.24.

During further excavation in 1863 the diggers were surprised to come across pockets of air among the hardened ash. Giuseppe Fiorelli realized these pockets were probably left after dead human bodies had decomposed. He started filling them with plaster before digging them out, resulting in striking casts that captured the terrifying last moments of those who remained in the town.

About a third of Pompeii remains unexcavated. Mount Vesuvius last erupted on 17 March 1944, destroying several villages and causing damage at a nearby United States Army Air Force Base. With its history of sudden and violent eruptions, and three million people living within close proximity, Mount Vesuvius is considered to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes on the planet.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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You fixed it with what?!?

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo has recently come under fire for fixing an artifact with epoxy glue.  Oops!

The mask of King Tutankhamun was being cleaned when the iconic beard came off, and was rumoured to be hastily reattached with the inappropriate adhesive.  And poorly reattached too, with reports the remnants of the glue were visible to viewers of the object.

The Museum sector has guidelines for the correct materials and methods to be used in the conservation, preservation, and repair of historic items, and we do our best to stick to these rules as much as possible.  Acid-free, pH neutral, non-corrosive, and ideally reversible if need be.

For more information on caring for, and fixing, artifacts, check out the Canadian Conservation Institute here.  Or, visit your local museum or archive center for a chat with a friendly conservator or collection manager.  We are always willing to help!

Caring for a precious collection

Caring for a precious collection

We were in the vaults; that converted carpark wherein lies most of the museum’s property. Much of it is already old, and we expect it to get much older. With the latest run of natural disasters and threats to man-made structures, heritage or otherwise, how long can we preserve our history?  “We’re looking for perpetuity,” says museum curator, Libby Sharpe. “Most people would never imagine that the museum has about 80 per cent of its collection in storage … That 15 per cent on display is more or less a formula for most museums.”

Libby began her museum career at the Canterbury museum, a place that underwent major earthquake proofing a couple of decades ago. It paid off. Their website reports minimal structural damage to the old buildings and 99 per cent of the collection is unharmed.

She says Wanganui is particularly prone to flooding and during the 2004 deluge the museum, itself safely above the rising water table, helped people clean and restore family papers, photographs and paintings and assist with advice and direction. She says family treasures and memories can often matter more than a house or other property and their loss can be devastating. So we talked about disasters and the plans that are in place for such institutions as museums, art galleries and libraries.

“They have specific priorities in rescue,” says Libby, “Obviously, people first, but we hold these collections that are immensely valuable, and I don’t necessarily mean in terms of money, although that is a consideration. They are a huge asset, but when they’re gone, they’re gone.” She talked about measures that are in place to preserve damaged material until experts can take over and complete the restoration. For example, she says she has seen sodden, ancient books being wrapped in plastic and put in the freezer until such time as serious salvage can be performed.

The archives in our museum is a huge collection by most standards and it is uniquely Wanganui. As Libby says, there is no other collection like it in the world. “So you see, we do take a lot of trouble with our storage. We use waxed boxes which have a degree of fire retardancy and also protect from light and atmospheric dirt,” she says. The boxes (called transit boxes) also allow air to circulate, preventing mildew and dankness. She also mentioned a ‘number 8 wire fix’ used since the 1970s to store rolled plans; realising they would be crushed if stored in a flat drawer or shelf, someone came up with the idea of a calico sling.

Keeping in mind changing technology and standards of preservation, Libby says, “Anything we do should be reversible. Conservation is incredibly expensive because it’s time-consuming and vastly expert. Conservators train for seven or eight years.” She says the local museum staff are trained in basic conservation to enable them to provide optimum conditions for the collection and to prevent any further deterioration. Temperature and relative humidity is monitored, keeping conditions right to keep the collection stable.

Libby showed me a red line that runs along the concrete in the ‘vaults’. To one side of that line, the concrete flooring has been reinforced to allow storage of great weights. Up to 500kg per square metre can be stored on that part of the museum, contrasting with up to 300kg outside the line. She also showed me one of several orange cupboards in which emergency supplies are stored. Most of the equipment within is for dealing with water damage. There are also personal lidded buckets for each staff member, filled with essential items should disaster strike.

As we walked through the vaults, Libby showed how shelving was made secure and how stored items like crockery were protected with acid-free foam. Ancient stone tools rest in their drawers, fitting snugly into thick-cut double-layered foam. She says the museum is one of the most protected buildings in Wanganui, certainly as far as fire safety and security against human invaders is concerned, as well as safeguards against time.

“We have to lessen the impact of disaster by how we manage our building and collections,” says Libby. “We need to address possibility, not wait for inevitability. All the same, all the money and all the care in the world will not guarantee either is safe.”

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in March 2011.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.