PITTSBURGH – When Aug. 24, 79 A.D. dawned over the Roman city of Pompeii, the 11,000 residents of the bustling, cosmopolitan, commercial port had every reason to be believe the day would be just like any other.

The well-to-do were ensconced in their comfortable dwellings, their needs and whims answered by servants or slaves. The many less-privileged denizens of Pompeii were starting their day in modest apartments. Perhaps gladiators would engage in a bloody fight for daytime entertainment, or there would be a theatrical performance with actors donning masks and acting out ribald stories. Food could be had from restaurants or bars, and might include olives and fish.

There had been a few mild earth tremors in the days before, but those were common and so no one in Pompeii took much notice or gave them much thought.

But somewhere around 1 p.m., nearby Mount Vesuvius started to erupt, belching gas and raining molten rock, hot ash and pumice down on Pompeii and the nearby town of Herculaneum. It’s believed that the geyser from Vesuvius shot 21 miles into the sky. It kept on erupting over the next 24 hours.

Residents were caught off guard because they had no inkling that Mount Vesuvius was even a volcano, according to Jason Simmons, executive vice president of World Heritage Exhibitions, the suburban Cleveland company that is responsible for “Pompeii: The Exhibition.” According to Simmons, “They had no word in the Latin language for volcano,” and it had been 700 years since it had last erupted.

Some residents had the good sense or the means to flee Pompeii, but others stayed behind and died, and the structures of the town were mostly leveled and burned. By the time Mount Vesuvius simmered down, what had been Pompeii was buried under tons of ash, the area around it a shattered hellscape. Perhaps trying to banish thoughts of the total devastation, Pompeii rapidly slipped from memory, and it soon became a mystery precisely where the city had even been located.

That mystery and others surrounding Pompeii started to be solved almost 1,700 years later, when excavations began at the site. Archaeologists were able to find a treasure trove of artifacts that offered pivotal insights on what life was like in Pompeii, and in that part of the Roman Empire, at the moment the city was destroyed. They also made a more macabre discovery – the ash that covered the bodies of those who perished had calcified, creating body casts that lasted centuries after the skin and tissue of the victims had decomposed. Some of the casts showed the agonies the victims endured in their final seconds.

The majority of the relics at Pompeii have been housed at the Naples Archaeological Museum in Italy, but 180 of them are on loan for the touring exhibit “Pompeii: The Exhibition,” which opened at the Carnegie Science Center and will be there through April 24.

There are statues of mythological figures Aphrodite and Dionysus and unidentified Roman grandees, and a whole slew of objects, including bracelets, rings, helmets, mosaics, keys, a lamp, bottles, theater masks, a noisemaking device that was used for a visit to the theater and scalpels used in medical procedures.

Along with all the relics and the body casts, the latter of which are seen at the very end of the exhibit, “Pompeii: The Exhibition” also has a 4D Eruption Theatre that gives visitors a sense of the enormous power Vesuvius had. Simmons said its devastation was comparable to the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington, which destroyed scores of buildings and highways and killed more than 50 people.

Last weekend, California University of Pennsylvania geology professors Dr. Kyle Frederick and Dr. Daniel Harris and students from Cal U’s geology program were at the Carnegie Science Center to provide an overview on volcanoes. According to Frederick, “Volcanoes are spectacularly different, and there are a wide range of risks associated with living near them.”

Also, Dr. Cassandra Kuba, an anthropology professor, Dr. Renee Ho, an anatomy instructor, and Maxine Neiberg, a Cal U graduate and anthropology instructor, showed animal and plant remains from archaeological sites, and art professor James Bove demonstrated how to make plaster casts similar to those that are being displayed in “Pompeii: The Exhibition.”

Kuba noted, “Pompeii is such an interesting site to illustrate how we need a variety of experts and specialists to contribute to our understanding of history and prehistory.”

For additional information on “Pompeii: The Exhibition,” go online to carnegiesciencecenter.org/pompeii.

Staff Writer

Brad Hundt came to the Observer-Reporter in 1998 after stints at newspapers in Georgia and Michigan. He serves as editorial page editor, and has covered the arts and entertainment and worked as a municipal beat reporter.

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