Saturday, 20 April 2013

Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum and the Roman Finds Group conference

It was a case of Pompeii overload yesterday as I attended the Roman Finds Group's conference at the British Museum and went into the related Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition not once, but twice during the day.

To mention the excellent conference first, its not my intention to break down every word said by every speaker, but here are some of the more thought-provoking things they said, as I saw it.

Dr Paul Roberts (British Museum) - 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum'

Dr Roberts is the lead curator of the exhibition and gave an honest and personal account of the displays, to which he has clearly committed a lot of time and love. As you'll read below, I think he's pulled it off magnificently.  His pleas to Roman specialists to try and understand the limitations and intended audience of museum exhibition interpretation was particularly familiar to anyone who has been involved in constructing displays.

It was also interesting to note that 95% of the exhibition's content has come from Italy (much of it leaving the country for the first time), and that this is the first exhibition to feature both Pompeii and Herculaneum in the title, giving the smaller site an equal billing that it so richly deserves.

Professor Ray Laurence (University of Kent) - 'Pompeii: from City Streets to People and Houses'

Professor Laurence took us back outside the houses to the streets that surround them, and certainly made me reflect that, in my ignorance, I had always taken a very 21st Century view of streets and roads - seeing them very much as simply places for traffic to travel down.  An increase in scholarship over the last decade or so has started to change our understanding of the role and use of streets, not just in the way that carts and pack animals used or, just as importantly, didn't use them, but also in how the location of shops, water features and shrines indicate how the streetscape was a place for socialising and the teaching of children, and certainly not just somewhere for vehicles to trundle down.

Alex Croom (Tyne and Wear Museums) - 'Housework in the homes of Pompeii and Herculaneum'

Alex Croom looked back inside people's houses, to the furniture and evidence of household activities.  This stems from her own research in recreating the furniture for the interior of the various buildings reconstructed at Arbeia Roman fort in South Shields.  Issues such as the use of chests and cupboards for longer and shorter term storage (including practical issues such as how sticky used oil lamps become), the fashion of having crisp laundered creases in clothes and even what the Romans stuffed their mattresses with were all tackled.  Even the issue of toilets, chamber pots and dealing with cess pits were discussed - a dirty thought but of course a necessity of life and a practical issue every household had to deal with.

Dr Andrew Jones (University of York) - 'One pot and its story'

In a shorter talk, Dr Jones introduced the 'AAPP' - the Anglo American Project in Pompeii, and he was the first of a number of speakers talking about their involvement with that project.  The AAPP has been re-excavating Insula VI.1, just inside the Herculanean gate (at the top left of the plan below).

Dr Jones' talk focussed around a single amphora, broken during the earthquake of AD62/3 and buried when the bar it was in was repaired.  Inside the broken amphora was a brown soil, which when sieved revealed thousands of tiny fish bones - evidence that its contents were 'garum', the fermented fish sauce the Romans were so fond of.  Analysis of the bones and ceramic fabric has revealed that the sauce contained bonito and sardinella fish, and was made on the Spanish / Portuguese border.

Dr Ria Berg (Institutum Romanum Finlandiae) - 'Did all Pompeiian women have mirrors?'

Dr Berg's research has investigated the frequency and distribution of mirrors and other 'mundus muliebris' (toilet articles) in Pompeii.  She discovered that most mirrors were found in domestic contexts, rather than as possessions gathered by fleeing inhabitants and discovered with their bodies.  Only around half of the houses she studied had mirrors, and these usually only contained one.  Only the largest houses had more than one mirror (such as the House of the Menander and the House of Paquius Proculus).  The location of these mirrors revealed that they were usually stored with other toiletry articles, but in more general storage cupboards rather than in bedroom settings.

Equally interesting was the number of mirrors found in buildings that might have served as brothels ('luparnar'), suggesting some form of communal use, or represent the personal grooming of the girls working there.

David Griffiths (University of Leicester) - 'From dusk 'til dawn: lamps and lighting in Pompeii'

David Griffiths was the second speaker involved in the AAPP project, and his research centres around the socio-cultural and economic implications of lighting in the Roman world.  His study of the lamps from Insula VI.1, specifically those from the House of the Surgeon, demonstrated the growth in artificial light throughout the 1st Century BC.  His work in progress on the amount of olive oil required to light certain homes, business and public buildings is a fascinating step into the more practical realities of keeping the many oil lamps required to light a busy town burning.

Dr Hilary Cool (Barbican Research Associates) - 'Becoming Consumers: the inhabitants of a Pompeiian insula and their things'

Dr Cool's talk opened by challenging just how representative the fabulous material remains from Pompeii are of Roman towns across the empire.  By looking at the objects in use at the point of the eruption, a unique picture of older objects still in use combined with emerging fashions and technology can be gained.

This was demonstrated through the study of glass vessels and loomweights from Insula VI.1.  The glass vessel assemblage showed the emergence of blown glass and a greater variety of forms in the years leading up to the eruption.  In the case of loomweights, the assemblage suggested that, in contrast to the glass, older warp weighted loom technology was still in use at a time when it had been superseded in other places, even in Britain.  However, rather than being seen as evidence of Pompeii being backwards, this is evidence of the traditional role of the Roman matron as a provider of cloth for her family, and these antique loomweights therefore served an important purpose, but not one directly related to their function.  They were symbols of respectability and tradition.

Dr Richard Hobbs (British Museum) - 'Small change in ancient Pompeii'

The conference was entertaining completed by Dr Hobbs, another speaker involved in the AAPP project.  The coinage recovered from the excavations at Insula VI.1 have presented a large and unique assemblage of 1,500 coins, particularly important for determining exactly what coinage was in circulation at the time of the eruption.

The most fascinating element of the talk, though, was the series of coins of the 2nd Century BC from Marseilles (Massilia) and Ibiza (Ebusus).  These were imported into Campania, possibly even in one large, deliberate shipment, but then copied locally.  The Ebusus coinage is particularly interesting as it features imagery of the Egyptian dwarf god Bes.  Dr Hobbs proposed that this image may have been chosen because of Bes' associations with wine and merriment, and that these early coins were being introduced to be used in such contexts.

So there you have it.  A very well organised conference with a great range of entertaining speakers which complemented the themes of the exhibition well, and provided a wonderful insight into the new research being carried out in these most fascinating of archaeological sites.  Huge thanks are due to the Roman Finds Group for arranging it.

The British Museum's exhibition 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum' was one that I've been dying to see ever since I first heard about it being planned through the museum grapevine about 3 years ago. I'm delighted to say that it lived up to my every expectation - which not every well-hyped exhibition does.

The first thing to say is that the object selection truly is stunning. The range of iconic objects is second to none, and it must have been a nightmare transporting and installing some of them, let alone managing issues such as environmental controls and security.

Chief among these awkward displays has to be the reconstructed garden fresco from the Villa Arianna at Boscoreale.  The effect is wonderful, and reminded me of the display of the garden frescoes from Livia's vill at Prima Porta in Rome's Palazzo Massimo.

The second triumph is simply the approach and layout. Pompeii and Herculaneum are far too often talked about in fatalistic terms, but this exhibition is about life rather than death. The decision to focus on the Roman home was a brave one, as it means that many facets of the sites are omitted entirely (I don't remember a single brothel reference or mention of the amphitheatre and its famous riot for instance) but it works wonderfully. The use of the layout of Pompeii's House of the Tragic Poet as a model for displaying artefacts in domestic room groupings, with effective but understated set dressing and sound effects worked a treat, and gave the objects from different houses a unity that most books on Pompeii struggle to achieve.

The inevitable Pompeiian body casts were there of course (including the headlining dog), but were wisely limited in number and handled very sensitively, and the interpretation and selections of possessions displayed alongside them made their stories touchingly human.

Picture of a dog at Pompeii recovered from a plaster cast

The carbonised wooden furniture from Herculaneum was perhaps the star of the show, as even going to visit the sites doesn't present the opportunity to see them, which is a real shame. The baby's cradle rightly attracts a lot of attention, but the whole selection of tables, chests and decorative fragments are mind blowing to those of us used to Romano-British archaeology, and it takes a conscious effort to remind yourself just how old they are, and that they're not replicas.

There has been a fashion in British Museum exhibitions over the last few years to have a video presentation of some kind, but the one shown here is definitely a more engaging and graphically inventive presentation than ever before, with some nice playing with words to describe the progress of the eruption, while at the same time linking the ancient city of Pompeii with the modern inhabitants of the Bay of Naples.

So did I enjoy it? Absolutely.  Will I go back and see it again? Hopefully.  Is it as good as going and seeing the sites for yourself?  Not quite, but it is one of the most engaging exhibitions the British Museum has put on in years and deserves all of the plaudits it receives.

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