Herculaneum & Pompeii: Fingerprints on the Earth

Everyone had warned us. Bring a hat. Bring an umbrella. Drink water.

You will sweat.

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One of the many side streets in Pompeii.  | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Day two into thirty-three days of inspiration I faced dehydration and a persistent fight against bouts of jet lag induced exhaustion to fulfill a dream. On day two I visited the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii where the heat shimmered before me, an undulating, endless wave of haze. I could almost touch the air as it moved, and when the heat overwhelmed and I struggled to breathe, water always saved the day.  Despite all this, where my body rebelled against exterior influences begging for the air-conditioning and fans, my mind was filled with exhilaration . 

Herculaneum, first. At my ophthalmologist’s  recommendation we stopped at this much smaller site just past nine-thirty in the morning. It’s haunting. Foundations and towers, still pigmented red with just faded mosaics gracing walls. You can almost, just almost, feel the human life as you duck through archways and through rooms. Herculaneum isn’t vast, but you could stand in the center of a crossroads and see the markers of a city that once was.

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Remains of columns in Herculaneum. In many places the pigments and mosaics that survived provide indications about the wealth and status of the cities inhabitants. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

I  was startled by the dead on display at the boathouse.* Unexpected – it was moments after a realization that we had been reading the guidebook wrong, ending where we should have begun.

Nevertheless, it was easy to shiver on the encounter. To feel surprised, yet numb. But upon closer examination the tragedy fills you. The bones are clinging, intertwined with undeniable fear. Looking for some sort of protection from the molten air that drifted down upon them.

It’s terribly, terribly sad, even though, despite this tragedy, these people would have died long before I arrived on this earth.

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Standing inside one of Herculaneum’s buildings. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

That solitude, that quiet of Herculaneum is quickly broken as we drove up to the entrance of Pompeii. There are visitors everywhere — small families, strollers with babies who somehow are surviving the temperatures, lines of people walking three by three or taking the width of the street as they follow a bobbing cat in the distance, the marker held aloft by a tour guide who weaves through the crowd.

Two hours. That’s all we have, and despite the heat and its limitations my one minor regret is that I neglected to find a guide that was more than simply adequate. Blame it on planning fatigue, but as they say hindsight is….

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Interior ceiling at one of the baths in Pompeii. In most cases the ceilings for buildings collapsed under the weight of ash. This particular ceiling survived because it was a domed.  | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Nevertheless, the peaceful reverie that we had fallen into swiftly shifted as we entered the chaos and masses of bodies traversing the city streets. I could imagine what Pompeii must have felt like as our guide led us through the main quarter of the excavation. My heart did a little thump as I walked through the grounds where gladiators fought, ran my finger over the stopping stones for chariots, and peered at the grooves for gliding sliding doors at the various storefronts, saw the phallic etched in directions for sailors to find brothels as they came into port, and stood in the center of a small theater where musicians and dramatists once played.

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Inside the Forum at Pompeii, surviving the heat. You can see Mount Vesuvius on the horizon. Right before the eruption the Volcano would have been significantly taller than it appears today. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Not to mention, sitting just above the Temple of Jupiter, the towering, taunting, domination of a volcano on the horizon.

Waiting.

Waiting.

Quietly waiting.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Pompeii’s dead and how in viewing the plaster-formed remains we can see that even in death, not all experiences are the same. Some died with knowledge, others in blissful ignorance.

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I can’t remember what building this is in Pompeii, but it provides an example of the different levels of preservation of decorations on each of the remains. Also – shade for those today looking to escape the heat. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

With that in mind I am reminded of my intentions. I have a vague memory of when I first learned about the excavations. But I wanted to come here to stand as witness, and for yet another spark, and inspiration about my work as a historian. Without these sites, our understanding of the eruption in 79 AD would have been limited to textual memories of those who escaped or witnessed the eruption. The lives lost in the disaster would have been, on some measure, silenced.

Herculaneum, Pompeii, and so many others are a reminder that we leave traces of our human existence in the soil. Fingerprints on the earth long after flesh and bone have disappeared.

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Stones placed at the end of one of the major streets in Pompeii that were meant to stop the chariots from entering the public forum. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

While nothing can replace the act of the silent awareness of walking through cities devastated by an uncontrollable, unfathomable display of Earth’s wrath, I took the memory of the lives lost home.  My hope is to anchor this experience amidst our present day realities, and use that fire to emphasize that giving voice to the voiceless is our responsibility not only as historians, but as human beings.

*The bones at Herculaneum are actually casts of the real remains which are safe from the harshness of weather and time.

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