Pompeii and the Deep Unease of Absence

The St. Louis Science Center has an exhibit now called “Pompeii: The Exhibition,” with 150 artifacts on loan from the Naples National Archaeology Museum. “A volcano awakens, a city vanishes,” signs say.

Visitors must look first at artifacts of everyday life in Pompeii, then stand through a short CGI movie of Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD. The effect builds on how museums gloss and even eroticize peering at other people’s stuff, sometimes after they have died horrifically. There is a lingering unease in it. Where are the people? What would they say if they could see bits of their homes, or bits of themselves, on display?

One striking thing about the “everyday life” portion of the exhibit is the emphasis on Pompeiian superstition and pre-scientific understanding. Talismans, charms, and amulets are everywhere.

The bronze medallion from a home safe, shaped like a bull, “animal-form of the god Jupiter, would have offered protection and scared away potential intruders.” The Gorgon floor mosaic “would have scared away possible intruders.” The tintinnabulum, ancestor to the windchime, “was believed to ward off evil spirits.” “Households contained…good-luck charms…with erotic motifs.” A “phallic herm, a fence post with the head of a man, [was placed] at the edge of a field to ward off evil.”

But in a quotation on the wall, Pliny the Younger, a witness to the eruption, describes the collapse of faith. “Though some prayed to the gods, most felt as if the gods had abandoned them,” he says.

The irony in the curation reminds how useless magical thinking is against natural forces, and how ignorance of science can doom a population. A visitor and his son tried to figure out if, given what we know now, they could have run to safety after the seismic activity began but before the pyroclastic flow engulfed the town. Pliny the Younger survived in Misenum, 13 miles away; his uncle, Pliny the Elder, died in Stabiae, three miles from Pompeii. But the population of Pompeii stayed put in part because they had felt temblors all their lives, so they believed it would be okay. This kind of magical thinking, we share with them.

The similarity prompts defensive humor. One visitor made a nervous joke about Fire Marshall Bill, and after reading that Pompeii “was a city of successful entrepreneurs with an economy dependent on slavery,” said, “You got a nice slaveholding society there. It would be too bad if somebody volcanoed all over it.”

In “A Note to Parents,” the museum warns that while the exhibit has “great history lessons for children–it’s important to remember that ancient Roman civilization held a very different view of sexuality,” some of it on view in a small section of “erotic imagery.” Also, the “very realistic 4-D experience…may frighten some children.” A blond child of about three sat in her stroller with her hands over her ears, as the theater poured sound, vibrations, and smoke. She would not watch the movie.

Only the last section contains the amorphous ghosts—plaster castings of the spaces in the pumice and ash where people died. They are far less defined than the marble statues on display at the start. More than anything, they look like victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For at least one young visitor, the exhibit seemed to suggest dangers he had never considered, including the inability of gods, rulers, businessmen, and elders to protect the vulnerable. In the final section he was bothered most by castings of young children and of a dog curled in agony.

Searching for understanding, he compared them to the fossil skulls of T. Rex and Triceratops in the hallway. But fossils replace bones completely with minerals, and their outlines are often crisp. They are solid, so much their own thing that the Science Center gift shop sells toys of them.

Most of the Pompeii castings are fragile and “contain human remains,” the docent said, insisting on respectful behavior. At least one had a rib poking through its side. The figures, with their jumbled contents and rough outlines, show all too well what can go missing.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.