Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE and buried Pompeii beneath 9 feet (3m) of volcanic ash, rock and debris.
More than 100 acres (44 hectares) of ancient Pompeii have been excavated to date but there are at least another 50 acres (22 hectares) still covered in debris from the eruption that happened two millenia ago. Excavations are ongoing and new discoveries are announced regularly.
History states that in 1599, while building a canal nearby, an Italian architect first discovered the ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii. However it wasn’t until nearly 150 years later, in 1748, that explorers rediscovered Pompeii and began excavation. They quickly discovered that deep beneath the layers of soil, ash and pumice, ancient Pompeii was so well preserved that it was almost exactly as it had been nearly 2,000 years earlier.
In the 1st century, Pompeii, with its population of approximately 10,000 residents, was a bustling and prosperous city believed to have been a popular vacation destination for wealthy Romans. The elevated sidewalks were paved and there were large stepping-stones pedestrians used to avoid any mud or muck when they crossed the streets. Pompeii offered public baths, bars, restaurants, brothels, forums, gardens, temples, amphitheaters to watch gladiators and chariot races and theaters for live entertainment. We also explored an ancient cemetery, walked past vineyards and through homes that are said to have belonged to wealthy merchants, poets and surgeons.
We also learned that paint used to cover the inside walls of the villas was toxic. Mercury was used in the red paint color and lead was used to make white paint.
On that fateful autumn day in 79 CE when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted, the mountain spewed smoke and toxic gas 20 miles into the air. The thick ash blocked out the sun and turned everything completely black. Some residents did escape the city, while others took shelter in their homes.
We found this vivid description. “The ash kept falling and at around midnight, the first of many, searing-hot clouds of ash, rock, and noxious gas rushed down the volcano toward Pompeii at about 180 miles an hour. The surge scorched everything in its path. By 7 am, nearly 19 hours after the initial eruption, Pompeii and many of its residents vanished beneath a deadly and deep blanket of ash and rock.”
The nearby Italian towns of Herculaneum, Ercolano and Portici were also buried by this same lethal eruption.
In 1860, the Italian archeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the site and began a thorough and methodical excavation. It was he who recognised the ash from the volcano that covered the bodies of the dead would have hardened around the bodies. As the body and clothing decomposed, a cavity was left – an exact negative imprint of the shape of the corpse at the point of death. To create the preserved bodies at Pompeii, Fiorelli poured plaster into those soft cavities in the ash, which were about 30 feet beneath the surface. These casts preserved the imprint and position of the bodies of the people, together with their bones, who died in the eruption.
There are not many bodies or casts remaining in Pompeii because most of the artifacts, art, jewelry along with hundreds of human and a few animal casts have been sent to a museum in Naples.
The Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary
Once we had explored the archeological park of ancient Pompeii we began to explore modern day Pompei. At the heart of the city today is the Pontifical Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary of Pompei, a Roman Catholic Cathedral that was built by Bartolo Longo between 1876-1901.
A painting called “Our Lady of the Rosary” was offered to Bartolo Longo in 1875 for the new church he was to begin building in Pompei. When Longo brought the painting to Pompei, a number of miracles began to occur. The local residents were so awed by the miracles that 300 pledged to pay one penny per month for an entire year to help pay for their new church. The coveted painting, placed on the high altar, honors the residents that helped fund the building.
You may have heard of the Italian alcoholic beverage called Grappa that contains 37.5% to 60% alcohol by volume. Producing grappa fits perfectly in our world today with our focus on reusing, recycling and reducing waste. Grappa production has zero waste. This fragrant, grape-based brandy is made by distilling the pomace (grape seeds, stalks and stems) leftover from the wine-making process. This very striking cat shaped glass bottle of grappa was displayed in our hotel foyer.
The modern day city of Pompei was founded in 1891 and has been built surrounding and on top of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Visiting the archeological ruins of Pompeii was absolutely worth our visit. Be aware though – the modern city has more aggressive and unsavory vendors than we have experienced anywhere in our travels and they can taint your impression of your visit. On the other hand, we watched the best and longest New Year’s fireworks show ever.
The future of ancient Pompeii and modern Pompei? Well the last eruption of Mount Vesuvius was in 1944, and the last major eruption was in 1631. This still active volcano is predicted to erupt in the fairly near future but with the evacuation warnings in place the 700,000 people who live in and around Mount Vesuvius should have sufficient time to move to evacuate to safety.
Saluti from these Pompeiani,
Ted + Julia