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The City Journals

Pompeii exhibit offers look at ancient Roman city buried in time

Feb 17, 2020 02:39PM ● By Drew Crawford

Artifacts from Pompeii exhibit, showing at the Leonardo Museum through April.

By Drew Crawford | [email protected]

The Leonardo Museum has hosted many breathtaking exhibits, and its decision to bring the world of Pompeii to residents of Salt Lake enables one of the greatest secrets of ancient history to come to life. 

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 volcanic ash buried the unsuspecting residents and the city in which they carried out their lives. All inhabitants that were unable to escape died in just a manner of hours.

One of the unforeseen consequences of the eruption was that the volcano preserved many artifacts of the ancient town. 

Roger Macfarlane, a BYU classics professor that presented at the Pompeii lecture series on Jan. 17, became involved by working on papyri from Herculaneum, another city that was involved in the tragedy. 

Macfarlane describes the disaster as a time capsule similar to the ones that are commonly built in elementary school that students bury in the ground, forget about and dig up later. 

“We get a reliable snapshot of what life was really like in the first century AD. A lot of times we don’t understand what the evidence tells us but we keep exploring it and catch on,” Macfarlane said. “There’s nothing like that for the phase of the Roman Empire when it’s in ascent. There’s no other time capsule like that.”

The artifacts on display at the Leonardo include frescoes, dining utensils and oil lamps. Figurines of Roman deities decorate the tables of the display, and statues of famous Romans that still preserve some of the original paint in their hair are viewable as one walks through the rooms. 

In the last room of the exhibit patrons get to see plasters of the actual people who died in the city. 

From the time that serious excavations first began on the city in the 18th century there has always been a story to tell about the inhabitants. 

“The King of Naples was really digging it because the stuff that was coming out of the ground, he was the only one in the world who owned anything like that so people were flocking there. They were mostly using the material culture as a glimpse into classical antiquity. They were just happy to have these things,” Macfarlane said. 

Over time the western world have invented fanciful revisionist stories about what happened at Pompeii. During the lecture Macfarlane discussed many works of contemporary film that reimagine Pompeii. One such work, “The Last Days of Pompeii,” is about a gladiator named Marcus who grows up in Pompeii and later helps people escape. 

Overall, the fascination with Pompeii and the works of art surrounding it are something of wonder. 

“Everybody is drawn in by the appalling manner in which these people died getting blown away in a volcanic eruption. It’s kind of intriguing, it’s kind of frightening, but there’s something inherent in us that we want to know that stuff,” Macfarlane said. 

Pompeii will be on display at the Leonardo in Salt Lake through April with weekly lectures by scholars and experts every Friday night. https://theleonardo.org/