Pompeii and Herculaneum - British Museum exhibition review: buried treasure

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Michael Glover is enthralled and moved by the eagerly awaited British Museum exhibition on the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Why is this marvellous re-telling of the tragedy of the destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii in AD79 under the all-too-brief watch of the Emperor Titus so moving and so thought-provoking?

Because of the quiet, meticulous and unemphatic way it has chosen to concentrate our attention upon the story of the everyday, and, having done so, to conclude with a dramatic presentation of body casts of a selection of those who died. Its triumph, then, is in its pacing. The story could easily have been told brashly and noisily from the start, accompanied by howls of piped anguish. It has that kind of blockbuster potential. Instead, the British Museum has opted to do something defter and more thought-provoking with the hellish tale.

And it has been enabled to do so because this was a rather unusual calamity. In spite of the desolation that met the eyes of those who witnessed the aftermath of the eruption of Vesuvius, much was wrested from those ruins more than a millennium and a half later, and much continues to be found to this day – as recently as 1992, for example, 300 hundred bodies were excavated from the shore line close to Herculaneum. Yes, that tumult of volcanic ash had acted as a terrible preservative of sorts.

The show begins as it means to continue, with a low-key presentation of a few objects in a display case, flanked by two pieces of signage. The one on the left reads Life, and the one on the right, Death. We see a carbonised wooden table next to the cast of a guard dog, twisted back on itself (as dogs do), and snapping at its own rump. On the wall behind we stare at a wall painting of lovers reclining on a couch. This sometime dog was once a void, and when that void was filled with plaster, the shape of the dog that it had once been, at the very moment of the catastrophe, re-emerged. (For a moment we find ourselves thinking of the working practice of Rachel Whiteread.) And so that once living thing appears next to an object of everyday utility, which now, in its slightly wizened and carbonised state, looks almost blacker than black – as if someone had rather ingeniously constructed this table out of – well – charcoal... It all feels very ordinary – and slightly ghoulish at the same time.

The show opens with a walk through the streets of the city, and then continues with the examination of the typical house of a prosperous citizen. We are never overwhelmed by a clutter of objects. We feel we are being encouraged to walk through these streets at an unhurried pace – and that feels comfortable. The streets of Pompeii were generally paved with basalt, and the pavements were high. The houses, usually two- and three-storey, generally out directly onto the street.

Throughout, the ancient is given the helping hand of modern technology – a film discusses the daily habits of those lands then and now; it likens the Italian sense of style to the showiness of the Romans. There are aerial and street views of Pompeii today, accompanied, on a facing wall, by Roman inscriptions about property ownership and electoral matters. We read a list of citizens, snatches of graffiti – the poet Virgil is much quoted. A map gives us the city street by street, pointing out some of the essential sites: the Temple of Isis, a brothel, the suburban baths. Everything here is the stuff of the everyday that was, at a certain terrible moment, dramatically arrested. It was a young city – few lived beyond the age of60 teeming with people who made their livings as bakers, fishermen, painters, cooks, barmaids. Ten per cent of them were what we would now regard as rich.

We visit each room, examining the objects that it would have contained. The designers have turned these rooms into simulacra of their Roman originals – even the walls look slightly smudgily lived in. We begin by standing at the entrance to a spacious atrium, that room where the public met the private. Many of the objects we stare at are perfectly ordinary examples of their kind. They do not seem to be saying to us: we are works of art, please admire us. Rather, their collective message seems to be: you too have a house. Think how like – or unalike – are the way we do things then and now.

The Pompeians, for example, were very unembarrassed about sex – look at the marvellous penis on the handsome figure that acts as a support for the cake stand, for example. Cake and the priapic? Yummy. Occasionally, we come upon an object which feels truly poignant – a wooden cradle, for example, with slatted wooden sides and rockers. Little has changed, we find ourselves thinking. We then read that the child died in this cradle, covered in a blanket. On the wall of the culina or kitchen hangs a fresco of everyday food: figs and bread; and then an entire series of playful narrative paintings which show us foodstuffs alive or soon to be dead: a rabbit nibbles at a bunch of grapes; two partridges hang against a wall. There was much pride in the making of some of this kitchenware: a handsome, patterned colander has been signed by its maker. A detailed account of the excavation of a Roman drain at Herculaneum presents us with an appetite-suppressing detail: this particular drain, we read, yielded up the largest amount of human excrement ever found in the Roman world: 700 sacks.

The presentation is systematic and sober-suited almost until the end. And then, just as the exhibition is drawing to a close, comes a heightened sense of emotional drama. We turn a corner and see her, in a low-lit area on her own, flung down onto her face, helplessly sprawled in death, the Resin Lady, so called because the void of the body left in ash was filled with clear epoxy resin. This woman died in the basement of a villa near Pompeii. Beside her is displayed her jewellery: a plain gold armlet, a gold ring with its gem stone, the silver pin that she would have worn in her hair. A little way away is an entire family that died together, huddled in an alcove under the stairs of a house. A child is on its mother's lap. Mother and father appear to be falling backwards, reeling from the tremendous blast of heat. A child lies in the boxer pose – which means that its tendons would have contracted because of the searing temperatures.

Pompeii was said to have had a population of about 15,000, and only 10 per cent of those bodies were ever accounted for. Some must have fled, taking whatever was most precious to them – beside the felled body of a soldier we stare at a long sword, a stabbing dagger and a bag of tools. Others took with them a wicker basket heaped with bronze coins or the key to a house that would never be seen again.

No one anticipated that such a thing might happen. Vesuvius, it was agreed, was dormant – barring the odd tremor or two. Not so. Pliny the Younger described the truth of the matter a couple of decades after the tragedy: "You could hear the shrieks of the women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men."

Throughout the show there has been spasmodic circumambient sound: the clop of horses, excited street chatter. Not so here, at the exhibition's most poignant moment. Here we are greeted by nothing but a deafening silence. Which is just as it should be.

Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum, British Museum, London WC1 (020 7323 8299) 28 March to 29 September

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