Pompeii: Stories From an Eruption Opens at The Field Museum October 22, 2005

CHICAGO, Oct. 11 /PRNewswire/ — It began with a loud crack, followed by a sharp rumble moving across the plain from the nearby mountain. An enormous column of dark smoke and debris rose from the mountain’s peak, growing to a height of tens of thousands of feet before it flattened and spread out against the sky, blotting out the sun. A few moments of calm, and then the “rains” came to Pompeii-first a shower and then a downpour of pumice, ash, and red-hot boulders. Later that night a powerful surge of super-heated volcanic gases, rocks, and ash raced down the mountain, burying nearby Herculaneum and those who had sought shelter near the shore. They would remain buried for nearly 1700 years.

Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption, at The Field Museum from October 22, 2005 through Sunday, March 26, 2006, tells the story of the people who lost their lives, and the vibrant society that was destroyed, in the eruption of the world’s most famous volcano, Mount Vesuvius. Through the things they carried as they fled, the works of art and everyday objects they left behind, and heartbreaking casts of victims who were buried in the ashes, the exhibition brings to life real people from the ancient world. Valuable jewelry, coins, and silver; brilliantly colored frescoes and mosaics; everyday objects from tools and keys to food abandoned on a table-all serve to tell the stories of people and society in the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Oplontis. As they explore those stories, visitors will learn about the extraordinary events that led to the cities’ destruction and ensured their preservation, and they’ll discover how archaeologists are using their finds to reconstruct the details of everyday life.

Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption was organized by the Ministero per i Beni e le Attivita Culturali, Soprintendenza archeologica di Pompei. The exhibition is presented by Harris Bankcorp Inc.

Reading the City

For the Roman empire in the first century, the area around the Bay of Naples was more than an outpost. One of the richest agricultural landscapes of the ancient world, it produced wine, olive oil, and fish sauce for export as well as for its own use. Its ports served commercial and military activities. And its beautiful countryside and Mediterranean breezes lured the wealthy to build grand villas and gardens. Though an earthquake had flattened the area in 62 AD, the people soon returned, pouring their savings into rebuilding homes and infrastructure, factories and shops. The marketplaces of Pompeii, the grand villas of Herculaneum, and the country estates of Oplontis teemed with life.

The eruption of Vesuvius ended it all in just two days. But the hardened volcanic material preserved the cities as they were at that moment, nearly 2000 years ago. Now, in the ongoing excavations of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other nearby sites, archaeologists are reading a history not found in books.

It has been said that there is no historical document like a city. University of Iowa archaeologist Glenn Storey, content advisor to the Field Museum on Pompeii, explains:

“The Romans did a lot of writing about their times,” he says, “but there were many things they didn’t write about-things they didn’t think would be important to history, or that they simply took for granted.” The volcano had no such historical agenda or blind spots; it immortalized slaves and children, graffiti, and plumbing, side by side with generals, politicians, and great art.

All these items have significance to historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists today. For example, Storey says, preserved workshops and tools tell us how gems were polished and jewelry made. Household items like keys, a mirror, or an ink pot give us a window into everyday life. Objects like these, along with wonderfully preserved frescoes and elegant statues from the buildings, set the background for the stories in the exhibition.

But at the center of the stories are people.

The Things They Carried

You may have seen photos of the casts. Made from the hollows left when the bodies of the victims disintegrated, they have become the “emblem” of Pompeii. In person they are unforgettably poignant: Individuals alone at the moment of death. Couples and families desperately fleeing together. Whole groups of refugees wiped out in an instant. The exhibition’s twelve casts- including one of a group of skeletons found in an arcade in Herculaneum-show us real human beings, not abstract historical figures. Faced with sudden catastrophe, they are caught in the act of doing just what we would be doing: trying desperately to survive; accepting the inevitability of death.

Though the casts are mute, the places where they were found and the objects found near them tell the stories of who they were, their station in life, what was important to them, and what they did as disaster approached. They were climbing a staircase … running for the door … crouched against a wall … huddled with loved ones or strangers. They grabbed what they could, still thinking of a future. Their arms full, they dropped some of it as they ran.

A small fortune in jewelry, elegant silver cups and utensils, and a hoard of coins lying near a young woman in the doorway of a sumptuous villa identifies her as the lady of the house; her companions in death, with meager belongings of their own, perhaps her slaves. Not far from them, his back turned to the door, a man crouches and covers his face with his hands; a faithful dog waits by his side. In a gemstone-worker’s shop, along with tools and unfinished work, a carbonized bed with a finely made headboard survives; beneath it, the skeleton of an adolescent boy who sought in vain to hide from the fiery surge. Elsewhere we find evidence of optimism: a man clutches to his chest a small box holding the tools of his trade-a surgeon’s instruments- hoping perhaps to aid his fellow refugees.

The familiar reactions of these distant people seem to bring them much closer to us. “The exhibition suggests many similarities between the ancient and modern worlds, not just in death but in life,” Glenn Storey notes. “They’re engaged in sports, politics, sending men to war. But how similar to us were the ancient Romans? Can we really know their mindset?”

Pompeii may not answer the question, but it offers food for thought.

The exhibition is supported by Compagnia di San Paolo with the assistance of Autostrade Meridionali.

Public Programs

Hear cultural historians, art restoration specialists, and authors discuss their work on topics related to the exhibition. Join us for city-wide programs, adult classes, and family workshops on volcanoes and life in Pompeii. For updates on public programs and special events, please call (312) 665-7400.


Accompanying the exhibition is a catalog, Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption (Electa), edited by Pier Giovanni Guzzo, Archeological Superintendent of Pompeii, with a forward by Field Museum President and CEO John McCarter. The catalog is lavishly illustrated with full-color photographs of items from the exhibition and additional objects, with text that places them in context and explains the human stories. A variety of experts have contributed fascinating essays on Pompeii in literature, cinema, and art.


Tickets to Pompeii include Museum admission and are priced at $19 for adults, $14 for seniors and students with ID, $9 for children 4-11 years old. Discounts are available for Chicago residents. Visit www.fieldmuseum.org or call (312) 922-9410 for details.

To purchase tickets call 866-FIELD-03 (866-343-5303), visit www.fieldmuseum.org, or come to the Field Museum box office.

Special rates are available for tour operators and groups of 15 or more. Call the Museum’s Group Sales office toll-free at 888-FIELD-85 (888-343-5385).


The Field Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Christmas Day. Last tickets are sold at 4 p.m. For general Museum information call (312) 922-9410.

Location and Travel Information

The Field Museum is located at 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, on CTA bus lines #6, #12, and #146, and close to other routes and the Metra electric and South Shore lines. An indoor parking garage is conveniently located just steps from the main entrance. For more travel information, call the Illinois Department of Transportation, (312) 368-4636, or the RTA Travel Center Hotline, (312) 836-7000.

You can visit The Field Museum’s interactive web site at www.fieldmuseum.org.

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