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.
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.
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.
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.