Ancient History & Civilisation

Part I

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII

1

SKELETONS AS ARTEFACTS

On 7 April 1768 the Austrian Emperor Joseph II visited Pompeii. To mark the occasion, a house was named in his honour and he was invited to witness the excavation of its contents. As he watched the workmen remove the pumice stones that covered the kitchen on the lower level of the house, a human skeleton was revealed. Perhaps the bones were draped just a little too artistically over several amphorae. Whatever the reason, it was instantly apparent that a deception had been perpetrated and that it was not of the highest order. Joseph II was not impressed.1

This occurrence was not unique, though other dignitaries were more gullible than the Austrian Emperor and failed to recognize that the scenes of the final moments in the lives of victims that emerged from the pumice and ash had been faked.

Such tableaux were the result of the tendency for those in charge of the site in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to re-excavate spectacular finds and produce vignettes for the benefit of celebrity guests; for example, the Casa del Chirurgo (House of the Surgeon) (VI, i, 10) was ‘discovered’ three times in the presence of royalty. The designated area was liberally salted with valuables, such as coins and statues, and then re-covered with ash and pumice stones or lapilli. Skeletons were often employed as they provided wonderful props for this kind of entertainment.2

Elements of this approach to the site have continued to the present, albeit in a less ostentatious form. In this context, the bones of the Pompeian victims have been treated as artefacts rather than as a class of archaeological evidence. That this happened in the eighteenth and even in the nineteenth centuries is perhaps not so surprising. The continuation of this tradition and the fact the skeletal material found at the site was not subjected to the types of analysis routinely used for human remains from other sites until the latter part of the twentieth century requires some explanation. The nature of the destruction of Pompeii, the history and philosophy of the excavations and the close relationship between popular culture and skeletal finds had considerable bearing on the study and presentation of human remains from this site.

Victims as artefacts: an overview of the history and philosophy of the excavations in Campania

A brief survey, especially of the early history and philosophy of the excavations at the settlements destroyed by Mt Vesuvius in AD 79, provides some insight into the status of human remains found in Pompeii.3 It should be noted that the majority of skeletal finds from Herculaneum were made from 1982 onwards, and as a result, the skeletal material has been treated very differently at this site (see Chapter 3).

Excavations started after the accidental discovery of Herculaneum in 1709, though they did not officially commence until 1738 at this site and in 1748 at Pompeii. In general, the initial excavations amounted to little more than a mining operation for artefacts with, at best, antiquarian interests. The main aim of these was to provide precious objects to adorn the residences of, first, the Austrian and, later, the Spanish Bourbon rulers of Naples. The techniques that were employed attracted criticism from eighteenth-century visitors, such as Thomas Gray and Horace Walpole, who considered that the excavations were being conducted in a haphazard manner. Some forty-seven years later, in 1787, Goethe also lamented that Herculaneum had not been excavated methodically and suggested that the work would have been much better if it had been done by Germans. One notable exception to the questionable practices of the eighteenth-century excavators can be seen in the work of Karl Weber, a Swiss engineer who worked as principal assistant to the director of the excavations, Rocque Joaquin Alcubierre. Between 1750 and 1764, Weber pioneered the first truly systematic approach to the excavation of Vesuvian sites. Not only did he explore new methods of excavation and produce detailed plans, he also recognized the importance of context. He developed a system for cataloguing finds and marked their provenance on the maps he produced. He also attempted to synthesize the literary and archaeological evidence.4

The Bourbon authorities attracted criticism for lack of access to the finds for study and the generally poor level of scholarship. Documentation of the work in progress tended to be minimal and information was jealously guarded, ostensibly because of the threat of robbery. When a description of the excavations was published by the king’s antiquary Venuti in 1748, the authorities at Naples did all they could to keep it from the public. In addition, visitors to the sites were discouraged from taking notes and drawing finds.5

One of the scholars who was initially denied access to the excavations was Johann Joachim Winckelmann, arguably known as the ‘father of archaeology’. Though this title is perhaps somewhat extravagant, there is no doubt that the art-historical approach he developed for the study of antiquities provided the foundation of classical archaeology. After unsuccessful attempts to view the excavations in 1758 and 1762, he wrote two scathing open letters on the mismanagement of the excavation, recording and preservation of the sites. These did nothing to endear him to the authorities, but eventually he was pardoned and granted permission to visit the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Winckelmann was one of the first scholars to provide information about the Campanian excavations to the European public.6 His legacy to the history of Pompeian research can be seen in the continued emphasis on art history over other aspects of the discipline of archaeology, for example in the work of Ehrhardt, De Vos and Schefold.7

Le Antichità di Ercolano esposte , the first of seven volumes that made up an illustrated catalogue of finds, was published by the Academy of Herculaneum in 1757. It is notable that this work was instrumental to the development of Neoclassicism. From the latter half of the eighteenth century, Pompeian motifs and influences began to appear in the repertoire of many artists, architects and craftsmen, including Canova, David, Ingres, Piranesi, Thorvaldsen, Adam, Soane and Wedgewood.8

The eighteenth century was also a time of antiquarians and collectors as exemplified by William Hamilton. Hamilton was appointed as British envoy to Naples in 1767, three years after his arrival in that city. Apart from his political role, Hamilton’s main contribution to the region was as a gentleman scholar. His reports on the volcanic activity of Mt Vesuvius to the Royal Society of London were published in 1772 and have been lauded as pioneer works in the field of volcanology. Hamilton was also fascinated by the excavations and was present when some of the more important edifices were uncovered, such as the Temple of Isis. He often acted as a guide to visitors of note, including the Emperor Joseph II and Lord Nelson. He was an avid collector of ancient artefacts and it has been suggested that he was responsible for organizing clandestine excavations. After a visit to Hamilton’s residence in 1787, Goethe expressed his suspicion that two candelabra he observed in Hamilton’s secret vault had ‘somehow strayed here from the cellars of Pompeii’. Hamilton published his first collection of antiquities in four illustrated volumes. This collection was subsequently bought by the British Museum in 1771.9

One of the more unfortunate long-term effects of this object-oriented, acquisitive approach to the past was that it encouraged plundering of the site for artefacts and discouraged proper documentation.10 The emphasis on collectable antiquities also served to diminish the perceived value of human remains, which generally only received attention for their macabre entertainment value. Perhaps the attitude towards this aspect of the site is best summarized by the comment Goethe made after his second visit to Pompeii on 13 March 1787. He wrote: ‘There have been many disasters in this world, but few which have given so much delight to posterity.’11

William Gell was Hamilton ’s successor as an expert guide to the excavations. Gell was also the resident corresponding member of the Society of Dilettanti in Naples from 1830. This society was formed in 1734 by a group of gentlemen who wished to educate the cultivated English public and encourage them to develop a taste for the classical art that they had admired during their travels in Italy. The Society of Dilettanti provided assistance to members of the British aristocracy who wished to establish collections of antiquities whilst on their obligatory Grand Tour. William Hamilton had worked for the society in this capacity. The society also supported the publication of scholarly works on the classical world.12

Gell became famous as a classical topographer, describing Greece and Asia Minor, Rome and Pompeii. His first volume of the Pompeiana series was published in 1817. These works were very popular as they provided the first account of the excavations in English. In fact, very little had been published on Pompeii in any language in the first fifty years of excavation. In a letter to the Society of Dilettanti in 1834, Gell complained about the politicking amongst those responsible for the excavations. He stated that on-site petty rivalries were responsible for preventing the documentation of finds either by the excavators or visitors to the site. He attempted to alleviate this situation by recording everything he saw as he watched the excavations progress. This information was included in the 1832 and 1852 editions of Pompeiana. Eventually, he was thwarted in this aspect of his work as he could no longer afford the bribery necessary to ensure him access.13 His contribution to the dissemination of knowledge about Pompeii in a period of poor documentation cannot be overrated. Nonetheless, he was criticized for concentrating his efforts on architecture at the expense of the more portable finds.14 This is certainly true for the skeletal evidence. The skeletons he described from the excavations he witnessed were generally only those that were discovered with gold coins or other valuables.15 This is hardly surprising as skeletal finds were not a major priority of the primarily beaux-arts interested Society of Dilettanti.

Even though the need for systematic planning and recording of the sites had been recognized, for example by Karl Weber, Francesco la Vega and Caroline Murat, the appointment of Giuseppe Fiorelli, first as inspector in 1860 and then as director of the excavations in 1863, marked the commencement of a rigorous approach to archaeological work in the Campanian region. He has been credited with a large number of improvements in the excavation and documentation of the sites, including the instigation of systematic excavation and regular documentation of all new finds. He enabled finds to be accurately mapped by dividing the site into regions made up of architecturally defined blocks or insulae which, in turn, were subdivided into numbered houses. This system is still in use. He also developed a policy of leaving objects and wall paintings in situ, where possible.16

Most importantly for a review of the history of the treatment of skeletal finds in Pompeii, it was Fiorelli who first applied a technique that had been used to reveal the forms of furniture and other objects made from wood to the human victims from Pompeii. Liquid plaster of Paris was used to fill cavities in the ash where organic material had decomposed over time. When it dried the surrounding ash was removed, leaving a cast of the form of the organic material. The first human casts were made in 1863.17 The impact of Fiorelli’s casting technique on the popular imagination was profound. It is telling that prior to 1994, the scientific potential of these casts had never been exploited (see Chapter 10).18 Ironically, it was probably the seductive nature of the strong images produced by the casts that ensured their relegation to the status of entertaining artefacts. Conversely, the scientific contribution of the botanical remains had been appreciated for some time.19

One of the advantages of Fiorelli ’s policy of not removing panels of wall paintings for museum display was that they could be studied in their original context. This enabled another nineteenth-century scholar, August Mau, to influence the course of Pompeian research. His main contribution to Pompeian studies was the classification of Pompeian wall paintings into four separate decorative systems in 1873. The details of his system of classification were elucidated in his 1882 publication Geschichte der decorativen Wandmalerei in Pompeji. These so-called ‘four styles’ were thought to be more or less chronologically distinct. They are still employed as a standard for the study of Pompeian paintings, though their chronological relationship is the subject of some controversy.20Like his compatriot, Winckelmann, Mau’s work reinforced the art historical approach to Pompeian scholarship. His continuing influence can be seen in the number of works devoted to the classification of Pompeian paintings.21

The methods of excavation and documentation established by Fiorelli were continued into the twentieth century by Sogliano (1905–10), Spinazzola (1910–23) and Maiuri. Amedeo Maiuri, who directed the excavations from 1924–61, further developed Fiorelli’s approach and techniques with the aim of presenting the site as it looked at the time of its destruction. Buildings were restored and domestic objects were left in situ. The policy for human remains was also that, where possible, they be left in situ.22 Maiuri’s successors in Pompeii essentially continued this approach, especially with casts, as can be seen in the case of a number of fugitives that were discovered in 1989, cast and left in situ in the Casa di Stabianus in Region 1, Insula 22 (Figure 1.1).23

It is notable that site management was often personality-based and driven by politics. Nonetheless, the history of these excavations reflects the development of the history and philosophy of classical archaeology.24 This overview highlights the continued emphasis on art and architectural history as a research priority at Pompeii. It partially explains why the human skeletal remains from the site were considered to be of marginal relevance to Pompeian archaeology for over two centuries.

A culture of bodies

From the first skeleton that was unearthed in Pompeii on 19 April 1748, the human remains in Pompeii captured the imagination of the public, possibly as a result of the enormity of the disaster and the way in which the bodies

Figure 1.1 Fugitives from the Casa di Stabianus in Region 1, Insula 22, found in the ash layer above the lapilli of the first eruption phase

were preserved. This probably was a major contributing factor for the retention of so many bodies in a period in the history of classical archaeology when skeletal finds were routinely discarded.25 Another factor, which made the discovery of human remains so desirable, was that they were often found with precious items with which they had attempted to make their escape from the devastated town. The above-mentioned skeleton, for example, which was found only about two months after excavations officially commenced, was discovered with a number of coins. Associated finds often provided the main reason for the documentation of skeletal finds.26

While the skeletons themselves were not seen to have any intrinsic value, their potential as props for the construction of theatrical displays for the amusement of visiting dignitaries was soon realized. Within a comparatively short space of time a culture of bodies was established. This was manifested in several ways, most notably through vignettes, myths and popular literature.

Vignettes

Over time, the use of skeletons of Pompeian victims for the manufacture of tableaux was expanded from being exclusively for regal visitors to more common use to entertain the increasing number of tourists to the site. A good example that demonstrates this activity in the twentieth century is the treatment and presentation of the skeletal finds housed in Room 19 in the Casa del Menandro (I, x, 4).27

Amedeo Maiuri excavated the Casa del Menandro between 1926 and 1932.28 He found the remains of three individuals at ground level in Room 19 near the entrance from the peristyle. He identified them as two adults and a juvenile.

Figure 1.2 Detail of skeletons displayed in Room 19, Casa del Menandro (I, x, 4). Note the bronze lantern and the reconstructed wooden shafts of the pick and hoe

The juvenile was thought to be female because a gold ring was found on one of its fingers. A hoe and a pick were found in association with these bodies.29 In a narrow vestibule in corridor L on the other side of the west wall of this room, another ten or so, mostly adult, bodies were discovered. They appeared to have collapsed on top of each other, and their bodies were so intertwined that Maiuri stated that it was difficult to distinguish individuals.30 They were found 2.5 metres above the ground. A large cylindrical bronze lantern was found in association with these bodies. Artificial light would have been necessary as this phase of the eruption was associated with darkness.31

By the time these two groups of victims tried to escape, the deposit of ash and lapilli had reached a depth where it occluded the groundfloor exits. Maiuri suggested that the group in Room 19 probably used the pick and hoe to make an opening in the wall through which they could escape.32Three holes that could have been made with such tools can be observed in the southern and Western walls of Room 19.33

Maiuri34 stated that the group of skeletons from the vestibule were transported in their precise positions to the adjacent room where the other three bodies had been removed. The bodies from the vestibule can still be observed in a glass case at the southwest end of Room 19. In addition to the bronze lantern, the above-mentioned pick and hoe with restored wooden handles have been placed with these bodies. In 1988 I was invited to examine the skeletons in this case for a publication on the Insula del Menandro.35

It has been presumed in the popular literature36 that the bodies from the vestibule were encased in situ and that they belonged to looters who had returned to Pompeii after the eruption only to be killed by poisonous fumes that had been trapped in the ash. The holes in the southern and Western walls have been cited as further evidence for this theory. The powerful imagery of these bodies in situ has been stronger than the academic literature and a number of scholars have developed theories about the skeletons, apparently without reference to the original reports.

There is a further complication in association with these skeletal remains. Despite Maiuri’s statement that the positions of the bodies were not altered during their removal to Room 19, it became obvious on inspection that the skeletons had been manipulated. That these changes occurred in Maiuri’s time can be implied from the fact that the area around the bones was consolidated with plaster that was sprinkled with ash when it was damp, thus maintaining the impression of bones in their excavation context. This technique, which usually involves the consolidation of exposed, but only partially excavated remains, had been employed for some time in Pompeii. Some of the bones near the surface were loose. The remainder were embedded in the compacted ash and plaster. A comparison between my measured drawing of the bodies37 and the photograph in Maiuri’s publication38 indicates that, with few exceptions, the arrangement of the skeletons has remained unchanged since they were enclosed in the glass case. The fact that various bones were partially embedded in plaster hampered analysis of these skeletons.

The skeleton associated with Skull Number 1 was found to have two left femora. The post-cranial remains associated with Skull Number 8 included one juvenile and one adult humerus. Skull Number 9 belonged to a young child, whilst the associated vertebrae were adult. A calcaneus had been placed where the patella should have been on the skeleton associated with Skull Number 10. This last piece of creative anatomy clearly post-dated Maiuri’s involvement, as evidenced by comparison with the photograph in his 1933 publication.

A small rectangular pit had been dug in the northeast corner of the exhibit. This was presumably used to deposit the bones that were left over after the skeletons had been reconstructed.

Perhaps the most remarkable alteration to the group was demonstrated by Skull Number 5, which had been totally faked. It was observed in the Sarno Bath collection (Chapter 5) that the form of any missing parts of skulls buried in fine compacted ash would be preserved as a result of ash filling the cranium and hardening over time. This phenomenon was exploited in the creation of Skull Number 5. The cranium was formed by pieces from several different skulls. The dentition included a combination of adult and recently erupted juvenile permanent teeth. The area around the orbits had been hand moulded in wet ash and the nose was composed of a vertebral body. It is not certain when this addition was made. It apparently post-dates Maiuri’s time

Figure 1.3 Skeletons displayed in Room 19, Casa del Menandro (I, x, 4)

as the comparably located skull in the photograph in Maiuri’s book39 appears to be considerably more complete than Skull Number 5.

With the exception of Skull Number 5, it is clear that there was no attempt at deception in the restoration of this group of victims in a place that was not the original find spot as Maiuri documented all his actions. The novel rearticulation was probably the result of the work being undertaken by untrained people with no knowledge of anatomy. Nonetheless, this resulted in the loss of information as the sample was essentially disarticulated. The alterations that post-date Maiuri are more disturbing. The inclusion of the bronze lantern, which, even though it was found with these victims, does not appear in the photograph in Maiuri’s publication, along with the addition of the restored tools that were found with the three victims in Room 19, was a conscious attempt to create both a tableau and a past that would appeal to visitors to this house.

This, and the earlier examples of vignettes mentioned above, indicates that the Pompeii that was presented to visitors from the eighteenth century to, at least, the first part of the twentieth century, hardly reflected the finds in their actual contexts, but instead was a product of wish fulfilment where the popular perceptions of the site were formed and realized. As a result, the Pompeii in the scholarly literature does not always resemble the extant remains. Since the eighteenth century, Pompeii has essentially been two separate sites; the archaeological site and that which was displayed to the nobility and the general public. Remains that have been presented to tourists and scholars as in situ have sometimes been manipulated or rearranged for better effect, thus simultaneously creating and challenging the concept of the site as a moment frozen in time (see Chapter 4).

The mythology of Pompeian bodies, or never let the evidence get in the way of a good story: victims real and imagined

Regardless of supporting evidence, stories based on speci fic Pompeian skeletal finds have become embedded in popular consciousness over time. The skeletons that formed the basis of these mythological reconstructions of Pompeian deaths tended to be those with associated artefacts because they provided excellent props for storytelling. These artefacts were usually precious, though objects of lesser value, like medical instruments, could also render a skeleton interesting enough for inclusion. Skeletons could also be singled out if they were found in contexts that inspired a spectacular story.

One of the best-known examples involved the alleged discovery of a skeleton in niche 21, on the left exterior side of the Herculaneum Gate. It was claimed that in 1763, a skeleton was found in a sentry box at this location, holding a lance and surrounded by armour and other finds associated with a soldier. The widely accepted interpretation was that this skeleton represented a soldier who was so disciplined that he did not leave his post, even when his world was crashing down around him.40 The story had wide appeal and the hapless soldier appeared in various forms of popular culture, including Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii in 183441 and Edward John Poynter’s painting Faithful unto Death in 1865 (Figure 1.4). This illustration by Lancelot Speed from an 1897 edition of The Last Days of Pompeii42 is clearly based on Poynter’s painting. The latter became one of the best-recognized images in Victorian painting. This image had particular resonance in England where it was used both as an exemplary case of unyielding dedication to duty and as a metaphor for the support due to the British Empire.43 The political potential of this tale was also exploited by Fiorelli. He invoked the story of the soldier who had considered death a better option than desertion in a letter of support for King Ferdinand II’s Constitution to the newspaper Il Tempo in March 1848.44

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Dyer dismissed this story as fiction.45 He not only doubted the veracity of the interpretation; he also questioned whether a skeleton was even found at this location as he could not find evidence of such in the excavation journals. Moreover, he pointed out that the structure in question was not a sentry box, but the funeral monument of M. Cerinius Restitutus, as evidenced by an inscription. This account was supported in other nineteenth-century publications but that did not put an end to literary and other references to this tragic scene.46

Scholars who have grappled with the possibility that this often-reported skeleton may have existed have suggested that instead of an interpretation of a loyal soldier, it was probably that of a victim seeking shelter in a tomb.47

There is no argument that skeletons were found in and around the Temple of Isis (VIII, vii, 27–28), though their interpretation has been somewhat fantastic. The temple was excavated by Francesco la Vega between 1764 and 1766. Two victims were found in the temple and one nearby with a quantity of precious goods, presumably from the temple. The popular myth that was woven about these victims is thought to date to the first decades of the nineteenth century. As the remains of eggs, fish and bread were found on a table in a room behind the temple, it was thought that the priests’ meal was interrupted by the violence of the onset of the eruption. Some of the priests fled with treasure from the temple; the one carrying the sack being toppled by the collapse of the colonnade in the Triangular Forum. The priests who remained inside the temple became trapped by the pumice build-up and could not escape, eventually succumbing to asphyxiation. Before he was overcome, one of the priests took up an axe and attempted to create an escape route by hacking through walls but was defeated by a very solid piece of masonry. It was claimed that he was discovered with the axe still in his hands.48 Bulwer-Lytton included this fable in his novel The Last Days of Pompeii (Figure 1.5).49

A recent description of the human finds from the temple is far more conservative. It merely states that one skeleton was found in the kitchen of the residential complex and the other was found in the ekklesiasterion. There are insufficient associated artefacts to further indicate the part they played in the functioning of the temple, though it has been suggested that one may have been a priest and the other a servant.50

Perhaps the most famous skeleton to become part of the mythology of Pompeii is that of the supposed woman in the gladiators’ barracks. The

Figure 1.4 Illustration by Lancelot Speed from an 1897 edition of The Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (opposite p. 374)

Figure 1.5 Illustration by Lancelot Speed of a priest from the Temple of Isis from an 1897 edition of The Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (opposite p. 372)

quadroporticus of the theatres (VIII, vii, 16 –17) was sporadically excavated over thirty years from 1766. It was thought that this space originally served as a foyer for the theatres but was transformed into gladiators’ barracks in the last years of occupation, presumably after the AD 62 earthquake. This interpretation was primarily based on finds of substantial numbers of weapons as well as bronze greaves, helmets, sword belts and shoulder guards. Numerous skeletons were found in this location but only one was really considered worthy of special attention. This skeleton was found in 1768 in one of the rooms in the quadroporticus and was adorned with armbands, earrings, rings and a very impressive necklace, which incorporated twelve emeralds. It was immediately assumed that this was the skeleton of a woman, purely on the basis of the associated artefacts. And not just any woman; this was clearly the skeleton of a wealthy matron who had made an unfortunately timed tryst with her gladiator lover and was caught in a compromising situation. A human skeleton near the bones of a horse that was found in the vicinity of the barracks was for some reason assumed to have been that of her servant, whose job was to protect her from harm. What isn’t usually mentioned is that the bejewelled skeleton was not found in a context that would have been conducive to intimacy as eighteen other skeletons were also found in the same room. In another version of the legend, this much-maligned individual was thought to have merely been at the barracks to service the inhabitants.51

A more recent interpretation is that this person was just one of a group of fugitives trying to make their escape from Pompeii via the gladiators’ barracks. It has been suggested that this individual was probably the last to enter the room as the skeleton was found near the entrance. It is unfortunate that we no longer have access to this and the other skeletons that were found at the barracks so that they could be identified using forensic techniques. It has spuriously been argued that some of the eighteen other skeletons that were reported to have been found in the room must have been children on the grounds that the room was far too small to hold that many adults.52

The casts of the impressions of human forms that were made from 1863 on inspired equally extravagant storytelling involving careers, status and the relationships between individuals in groups (see Chapter 10).

Pompeian victims in literature

A whole genre of literature in the nineteenth century was inspired, either directly or indirectly, by the human remains that were found in Pompeii.53 A number of literary works were based on specific skeletal discoveries. The work that had the most profound influence on both the popular consciousness and interpretation of human skeletal finds from the sites destroyed by theAD 79 eruption was Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel The Last Days of Pompeii.
The Last Days of Pompeii

The Last Days of Pompeii was published in 1834 and has probably been the most widely read novel about Pompeii. It was hugely successful when it was first published and its popularity has been continuous and widespread, as evidenced by numerous editions, translation into many languages and various interpretations in different media. The novel provided the inspiration for many nineteenth-century paintings, including Lawrence Alma Tadema’s 1867 work Glaucus and Nydia54 and Paul Falconer Poole’s The Destruction of Pompeii in 1835.55 It also spawned a number of film versions, including one in 1900, two in 1913, releases in 1926 and 1948, a stunning version in 1959 with Steve Reeves in the lead role and a mini-series that was made for television in 1984.56 While the story is compelling, Bulwer-Lytton’s writing style can be challenging and the poems that are littered through the novel are truly awful. He is justly famous for his purple prose,57 many examples of which can be seen in this novel, such as:

‘ Oh? is that you – is that Glaucus?’ exclaimed the flower-girl in a tone almost of transport; the tears stood arrested on her cheek; she smiled, she clung to his breast, she kissed his robe as she clung.58

It would be unkind to subject the reader to examples of his poetry. The Last Days of Pompeii is essentially a love story with the bonus of a volcanic eruption near the end. The setting and the knowledge that there will be a tragic outcome for a number of the characters are among the appealing aspects of the book. The story can be simplified by concentrating on the key characters.
Glaucus, the hero, is from Athens and resides in the house commonly known as the House of the Tragic Poet (VI, viii, 3), most famous for the mosaic of a dog accompanied by the words Cave canem (Beware of the dog) at the principal entrance. He is infatuated with Ione who lives in an unspecified house with her brother Apaecides. Her guardian is the evil Egyptian priest of the Isis cult, Arbaces, who wants Ione for himself and wishes to eliminate his rival. Conveniently for Arbaces, Glaucus is very handsome and has two other female admirers he can enlist, intentionally or otherwise, to help him achieve his goal. One of these is Julia, the wealthy and beautiful daughter of Diomedes, who inhabits the so-called Villa of Diomedes beyond the Herculaneum Gate. The other woman who loves Glaucus is a blind slave called Nydia. Arbaces obtains some poison from a witch who lives in a cave on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius. The witch is more than happy to supply this to Arbaces as she recently had the misfortune to offer shelter to Glaucus and Ione during a storm, during which Glaucus managed to wound her familiar. The witch also has a talent for prophecy and predicts the imminent destruction of Pompeii. Arbaces manages to pass the poison off as a love potion to Julia. He instructs her to administer it to Glaucus to make him more attentive to her. Nydia learns of this and steals the potion to give to

Figure 1.6 Illustration by Lancelot Speed of the main protagonists of The Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1897, Frontispiece)

Figure 1.7 Illustration by Clérice Frères from a French edition of The Last Days of Pompeii,by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, published in 1936 (Frontispiece)

Glaucus herself. As it has neither colour nor odour, Glaucus is not aware that his water has been spiked. Instead of making him fall in love with Nydia, however, it temporarily turns him into a raving lunatic. He roams the streets in this state and is found ranting next to the lifeless body of Ione’s brother who has just been murdered by Arbaces. Apaecides had converted to Christianity and was attacked by the priest for having abandoned the cult of Isis. Arbaces merely transforms the stylus of the incoherent Glaucus into a blood soaked ‘murder weapon’, which he plants by the corpse. Glaucus is duly taken into custody. He recovers from the poison only to discover that he is incarcerated and is about to fight a lion that is being starved in anticipation of the forthcoming games in the amphitheatre. He denies having committed any crime but he is ignored. With only one exception, his circle of young male friends, with whom he regularly partied, offer no support and leave him to his fate.

Meanwhile, Arbaces has managed to trap and hold Ione and Nydia captive in his home, along with a priest from the Temple of Isis, Calenus, who witnessed the foul deed and has threatened to expose the true criminal. Confident that everything is going according to plan, Arbaces heads off to the amphitheatre to watch the demise of his rival but Nydia manages to get a message to Glaucus’ last remaining male friend, the loyal Sallust. He duly liberates Ione, Nydia and Calenus, who make their way to the amphitheatre to exonerate Glaucus and expose the actual culprit. Glaucus is saved just in the nick of time but the lion is still hungry. Arbaces is about to become an alternative meal when Mt Vesuvius erupts. Numerous characters and unnamed Pompeians die in the course of the following pages but Glaucus and his true love, Ione, have the perfect guide to lead them to safety through the unnaturally dark and chaotic streets in the form of the blind slave girl who has always operated in darkness and has learned to navigate her way through the town. After justice is meted out to Arbaces in the form of a large column that crushes him to death, the protagonists are led to the shore and escape on a boat. Nydia, feeling that she cannot compete with Ione, and indeed does not deserve Glaucus after giving him the poisonous draught, jumps overboard. Glaucus and Ione marry, convert to Christianity and live happily ever after.

Bulwer-Lytton based this book on extensive research at Pompeii in 1832 – 33. He was inspired to create the character of Nydia as a result of a conversation with an expert on the ruins, who suggested that a blind person who knew their way around Pompeii would have had the best chance to escape the eruption.59 One of the key devices employed by Bulwer-Lytton was the use of skeletons that he saw in situ or heard about when he was conducting his study as the basis for a number of the characters in the novel. He re-animated these skeletons and gave them characters of his own invention and interpreted their last moments from their positions and associated artefacts.60 The character of the foreign villain, Arbaces, was based on a victim whose body appeared to have been severed by a falling column. Under the influence of Spurzheim, one of the founders of the so-called science of phrenology, it was determined that the skull of this individual displayed remarkable intellectual properties, along with a propensity for evil.61

The character of Julia was inspired by the form of a woman that had been preserved in the ash in the so-called Villa of Diomedes. Her father, Diomed, was drawn from a skeleton found in the vicinity of a bag of coins in the portico of the garden. The skeleton was reported to have had an iron key in one hand and a gold ring on a finger. Burbo, a minor character, was created from the axe-wielding priest in the Temple of Isis myth and Calenus was based on the skeleton found near the sack full of treasures taken from the temple.62 It is notable that though Bulwer-Lytton employed the skeletons from a number of famous myths, including the faithful sentry near the Herculaneum Gate, he did not mention the salacious story of the woman in the gladiators’ barracks. The repopulation of the site with re-animated corpses and with purely imagined individuals, often inhabiting houses that could be identified by any visitor to the site, contributed to the success of the novel and had a long-reaching impact on the interpretation of human remains destroyed by the AD 79 eruption.

The objectification of the objects of his desire: Theophile Gautier and Arria Marcella

Bulwer-Lytton was by no means the only author who used these devices in their reconstruction of Pompeian life and death. Shortly after his novel appeared, he was accused of plagiarism by Sumner Lincoln Fairfield, an American writer who had produced a lengthy poem called The Last Night of Pompeii in 1832.63 A better-known work that utilized the Bulwer-Lytton approach, and even some of the same bodies, was Theophile Gautier’s Arria Marcella, which was published in 1852. Though not as influential as The Last Days of Pompeii, Gautier’s piece is worth recounting.

The story opens with a visit to the finds from Pompeii in the Naples Museum by three French tourists, Octavian and his friends Fabio and Max. Octavian is smitten by the impression of a woman’s bosom and hip preserved in the compacted ash. This leads to a reverie about how entire ancient cultures had been lost, whilst the form of these mammaries had survived the millennia.64

The friends then continue on to Pompeii where they procure a guide. As part of the tour, the guide takes the visitors to the Villa of Diomedes and shows them the exact spot where the cast of the woman they had viewed in the museum was found. The guide’s description moves Octavian so that:

His breast heaved, his eyes were moist; the catastrophe effaced by twenty centuries of forgetfulness impressed him like quite a recent misfortune; the death of his mistress or of a friend would not have moved him more, and a tear, two thousand years late, fell … upon the spot where had perished, stifled by the hot ashes of the volcano, the woman for whom he felt himself filled with retrospective love.65

That night, the three men engage in a discussion of their ideal woman. Octavian confesses a preference for inaccessible women, usually in the form of statues, or dead or mythical individuals.66 He then went on to provide examples. On seeing the Venus de Milo in the Louvre, he was inspired to exclaim: ‘Oh who will give you back your arms, so that you may press me to your marble breasts.’67 On another occasion, he uses a medium to attempt to return the spirit of a woman, using a few head hairs he has obtained. The one thing that links his forays into love is that they are all marked by failure. Still, this does not deter him in his quest for love.

Octavian, his poetic heart beating fast, decides on a nocturnal visit to the site. He finds Pompeii strangely restored to its previous incarnation as a living town and realizes that he has been transported back to the days of Titus. He establishes the AD 79 date from the graffiti on the walls and he is struck with the notion that the woman whose impression he so admired in the Naples museum must now be alive and it might be possible for him to find and speak to the owner of those ‘divine contours’.68

Luckily, Octavian is an award-winning Latin scholar and has little trouble conversing with the local Pompeians, though he is instantly marked as a foreigner by his odd nineteenth-century garb and his Parisian accent. In fact, his accent is so strong that his first acquaintance offers to speak to him in Greek.

His new friend invites him to see a performance at the theatre. He is distracted from the play by the sight of a pair of breasts that appear to correspond to the imprint in the ashes on display at the Naples Museum. He is so aroused by these bosoms restored to life that not only is he convinced that they must be the very pair that he observed in reverse in the Naples Museum but that they also belong to his first and only true love. His passions appear to have been reciprocated and, by means of her slave, the owner of the divine assets entices Octavian to follow her home. Octavian has correctly identified her and she is introduced as Arria Marcella, the daughter of Arrius Diomedes. He is so mesmerized by Arria Marcella’s extraordinary anatomy that he barely registers the fact that he is following her through parts of Pompeii that have not yet been excavated.69

Octavian is taken to Arria Marcella ’s chamber where he finds her reclining ‘in a voluptuous, serene pose’.70 She explains that his desire for her has restored her to life. Just as they are improving their acquaintance, Arria Marcella’s father bursts into the chamber. Diomedes has converted to Christianity and is rather fervent. He proceeds to berate his daughter for continuing her dissipation beyond her lifetime by bombarding her with a series of questions:
‘Can you not leave the living within their sphere? Have your ashes not cooled since the day you died unrepentant under the volcano’s rain of fire? Have two thousand years of death not quieted you and do your greedy arms still draw to your heartless bosom the poor mad men intoxicated by your spells?’71

Diomedes then proceeds to exorcize Arria Marcella and to Octavian ’s horror she is returned to the state she was in when she was discovered during the excavation of the villa, ‘a handful of ashes and shapeless remains mingled with calcined bones, among which gleamed bracelets and golden jewels’.72 Octavian reacts by swooning and only regains consciousness when his worried friends find and rouse him the next day.

Octavian never recovers from his adventure. He is haunted by Arria Marcella. He keeps returning to Pompeii for moonlight visits but is never able to relive his previous experience, though he goes with a heart filled with hope. Despite his wishes and desires, ‘Arria Marcella obstinately remained dust’.73

Finally he marries a young English girl who is madly in love with him. She feels that despite being a good husband, he displays evidence of being in love with another. She investigates to the best of her ability but can never find evidence of a rival, but who would imagine that her rival is a long-dead corpse?

Part soft-core pornography, part travelogue, this work was too idiosyncratic to have the impact of The Last Days of Pompeii. Like Bulwer-Lytton, Gautier provided detailed, almost didactic, descriptions of the site. He also employed the same human remains as those used by Bulwer-Lytton as inspiration for the characters of Julia and Diomed, though in Gautier’s story they are imbued with different personalities and are called Arria Marcella and Arrius Diomedes. These same skeletons were also used for the characters in Ferdinand Gregorovius’ poem Euphorion: eine Dichtung aus Pompeji, which was published in 1858. In his tale, the skeletons retain the relationship of father and daughter. The father is still Diomedes but the daughter is now called Ione. They vary from the reconstructed individuals in the other works in that Diomedes is portrayed as an entrepreneur and Ione is much more gentle than either Julia or the siren portrayed in Arria Marcella.74

The skeletons found in the so-called Villa of Diomedes were found over the course of two years and had all the appropriate attributes for inclusion in Pompeian literature; they were numerous and they were found in interesting contexts with valuable and evocative associated artefacts. In 1771, the skeleton routinely interpreted as Diomedes, the dominus or master of the house was, as described above, found in the portico surrounding the garden, holding a key and accompanied by one of the most impressive collections of coins found in Pompeii. The remains of another individual were discovered near this skeleton, and were interpreted as being those of a slave. A large group of skeletons was discovered a year later in the cryptoporticus corridor.75 A clearly female form could be discerned, impressed in the ash around the bones of one of the skeletons (see Chapter 10).76 This became the ever-changing daughter of Diomedes. There is no compelling reason, apart from the circumstantial evidence of the key and the coins, for the interpretation of the skeleton as the dominus, and there is even less evidence to support the assumption that the skeleton whose form was preserved was this person’s daughter.

Impact of popular literature on academic research in Pompeii and other Campanian sites

Possibly as a result of the history of the Campanian excavations, especially with respect to the problems associated with the documentation of the sites, the distinction between popular and academic literature on Pompeii and Herculaneum tends to be somewhat blurred. As stated above, it was often only through popular writing, like that of William Gell, that information was made available at all in the early periods of excavation. Much of the information for these years was recorded and disseminated by gentleman scholars, like Hamilton and Gell, who observed the progress of the excavations. This perhaps created a precedent for a popular rather than a scientific approach to these sites. The legacy of this can be clearly seen in the tremendous influence that popular culture has exerted on the perception of the sites. It can be demonstrated through an examination of the influence of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel The Last Days of Pompeii on the interpretation of the skeletal evidence from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

It can be argued that The Last Days of Pompeii has been the single most influential work in relation to how the site and, more specifically, the victims, have been interpreted. Bulwer-Lytton did not envisage his novel to be seen as mere entertainment; he considered that it should also have an instructive component. In the preface to the first edition, he stated that it was important to integrate scholarship with creativity.77 The book had some of the hallmarks of scholarship, like the use of footnotes. His attitude to his work is reflected in a footnote about the form of the eruption78 where he stated that accuracy was not sacrificed for the sake of romance.

Bulwer-Lytton studied classics at school in Ealing and completed his education at Cambridge University. Throughout his life he was respected as both a scholar and a writer. The Last Days of Pompeii demonstrates a combination of these skills. It was based on thorough research, much of his information being obtained from detailed inspections of the remains along with discussions with William Gell and the Italian archaeologist Antonio Bonucci. Most critics acknowledge that, for the most part, it reflected what was considered historically and archaeologically accurate in the first half of the nineteenth century, even though his characters and their story were the product of his imagination.79 He attempted to synthesize the available knowledge and present it in a form where it could be easily understood. Perhaps this is one of the more dangerous aspects of this book in terms of its relationship to Campanian scholarship. Because of its perceived accuracy in some areas, the boundaries between fantasy and reality have become confused and there has been a tendency to assume the romance has some veracity.

The effect of this novel on the perception of the site was almost immediate. William Gell, for example, wrote in a letter to the Society of Dilettanti in March 1835 that, after reading the book, he mentally peopled the site with the characters from the novel and could not look at the House of the Tragic Poet as belonging to anyone else than Glaucus, the protagonist of The Last Days of Pompeii.80 Nearly thirty years later, a description of some of the first casts that were made was prefaced by the suggestion that they would have provided the basis for an excellent scenario by the talented author of The Last Days of Pompeii (see Chapter 10).81

The continued impact of this work is observable in the tendency to ‘reflesh’ the skeletons of victims and describe their last moments. There are numerous examples of the direct influence of this novel on twentieth- and twentyfirst century Campanian scholarship, though just a few will suffice to illustrate its impact.

Corti described the impact of the eruption on Pompeii as his own version of The Last Days of Pompeii.82 He embellished skeletal and other evidence to provide a narrative of the event. Not surprisingly, his account also included many of the legendary skeletal finds, as well as those from the Villa of Diomedes.

Ciprotti, in an article tellingly titled ‘Der letzte Tag von Pompeji’, stated that the only way to reconstruct the individual tragedies of how the victims met their fate was to use their remains as a guide. Like Bulwer-Lytton, he used the technique of reconstruction from the body and its context. He considered that the value of the skeletons, and more importantly the casts, was that they could be used to increase knowledge of the ‘horrific drama of the eruption’. He stated that the bodies demonstrated ‘universal scenes of horror and madness’ as well as individual scenes of heroism, selfishness and plunder. Ciprotti consciously included the bodies from the so-called Villa of Diomedes in the series of vignettes of the demise of particular victims because of their connection with nineteenth-century literature. Despite the fact that this was published as a scholarly work, the interpretations given to groups of casts and skeletons are essentially romantic and sentimental. Examples include: the interpretation of a skeleton found with cases of surgical implements in the vicinity of two groups of bodies near the amphitheatre as an example of altruism; manacled individuals who were unable to escape as a result of ‘heathen cruelty’ to slaves; and a male and female skeleton discovered along with the remains of a ‘weak youth’ who was thought to have suffered either from rickets or a hunchback, as a case where devoted parents perished in their attempt to rescue their son.83

The legacy of Bulwer-Lytton ’s work is so ingrained in the culture of Pompeian studies that it is likely that scholars are not always consciously aware of the influence of The Last Days of Pompeii on their work. The culture of bodies in Herculaneum

The in fluence of this novel on the interpretation and presentation of the AD 79 victims is perhaps best demonstrated by the pioneering work of Sara Bisel on the human skeletal remains from Herculaneum. While human skeletal finds were plentiful in Pompeii, very few skeletons were discovered in Herculaneum prior to the latter part of the twentieth century. In March 1982, while excavating a drainage ditch on the ancient beachfront at Herculaneum, three human skeletons were found. Other skeletal finds soon followed. Subsequent excavation revealed the remains of numerous victims, especially in the twelve boat chambers that fronted onto the beach (see Chapter 3). This forced a radical reinterpretation of the site as it had always been assumed that the majority of the occupants of Herculaneum had managed to escape. The value of these finds as a scientific resource was instantly recognized and the National Geographic Society was called to supply help. They provided the services of Sara Bisel, a physical anthropologist.84 An examination of her publications and writings about her work, at both the popular and the academic level, reveals direct and indirect influences of the 1834 romance.

The extent of the in fluence of the Bulwer-Lytton approach is unexpected at Herculaneum as most of the skeletal discoveries were made in a period when there was both an appreciation of the scientific potential of the material and techniques for skeletal identification were well established. Ironically, it is probably the understanding of the scientific value of the skeletal finds which ensured that a culture of bodies was generated at Herculaneum. This can be best understood by a brief consideration of the context in which Sara Bisel worked. The main research cost of obtaining funding from an agency that makes its profit from popular science is that it sets an agenda for the way that the results of work are presented. Bisel would have been under considerable pressure to communicate her findings in a way that would attract magazine and documentary sales. The fact that she was amenable to such an approach made her a most appropriate candidate for the job. The establishment of the culture of bodies in Herculaneum may have been exacerbated by Bisel’s untimely death. Some of her work has been published posthumously,85 which means that her interpretations were arrested at the time of her death. Like other scholars, it is possible that she would have revised the way her results were presented over time.

In 1990, Bisel was attributed as a co-author of a children ’s book about the Herculanean victims of the eruption called The Secrets of Vesuvius. This book can only be described as a ‘Last Days of Herculaneum’ with sections on Bisel’s work interspersed with chapters telling a story about the last days of specific victims. The technique that Bulwer-Lytton used of deducing the last moments of a person’s life from the position of a corpse and its associated artefacts was liberally employed. In addition, Bisel reconstructed the lifestyle, social position and general health of the victims on the basis of her skeletal analysis.86

This book is a conscious re flection of The Last Days of Pompeii, as can be observed in the many similarities between the two works. In some cases the same literary devices are employed, such as the use of an old hag with powers of divination who foretells the fate of the cities and the desperate rich person who feels it is possible to buy one’s way out of any disaster as exemplified by Diomed in The Last Days of Pompeii and the character of Flavia Theodora in The Secrets of Vesuvius.87

The National Geographic Society published two articles on Bisel’s work in their popular journal National Geographic. The majority of the skeletons described in these articles were the same ones that were used for the characters in The Secrets of Vesuvius. Most of these skeletons were apparently singled out for discussion on the basis of associated finds, such as jewellery, a boat, money and weapons. Some bodies received attention because of the manner in which they were found, such as the badly damaged body of a person who was blown from a terrace onto the beach as a result of the force of the explosion and large groups of bodies that were found huddled together. These criteria are the same as those that have been used for the Pompeian skeletons since the eighteenth century. The skeletons were given appellations like ‘the Ring Lady’, ‘the Helmsman’ and ‘the Pretty Lady’. One skeleton was given a Roman name, ‘Portia’.88

The features of three individuals were reconstructed by a National Geographic artist. A biographic profile of each of these people was provided by Bisel, based on her interpretation of the skeletal evidence. Bisel was reported as describing the skeletons in terms of their appearance, that is, whether or not they were attractive. She estimated their age-at-death, though the ages she gave seem rather specific, given the limitations of age determination from bones (Chapter 7); for example ‘the Soldier’ was considered to be about 37 years old and ‘the Pretty Lady’ about 35. General health and pathology that presented on the bones were discussed. Occupation and social status were established from a combination of the associated finds and skeletal changes. The so-called ‘Helmsman’, for example, derived this name as a result of having been found in the vicinity of a boat. The stratigraphic evidence, however, later revealed that the two finds were probably unrelated as the boat was found in a different layer. This person was considered to have been a slave because he had flattened long bones, a slightly hunched back and fused vertebrae which Bisel considered to be the result of stress from hard physical labour and poor nutrition. She also based this individual’s social status on the poor condition of his teeth. Similarly, the status of ‘the Ring Lady’ was based on the quality of her jewellery, along with the good condition of her teeth and bones which, according to Bisel, reflected good nutrition.89

The skeleton of a juvenile estimated to be about 14 years at death, which was found cradling the remains of a baby, was interpreted as a female slave on the basis of linear enamel hypoplasia on the teeth and skeletal changes to the upper humerus, apparently associated with hard labour, whilst the development of the arm muscles of ‘the Pretty Lady’ led Bisel to suggest that she was a middle-class weaver. The infant discovered in the arms of the ‘slave’ was considered to have belonged to the upper class because it was wearing jewellery.90

These reconstructions invite comment. Sexual attributions based on subadult skeletons tend to be unreliable (Chapter 6). The validity of the determination of social status from skeletal evidence can also be questioned. Forensic scientists occasionally attempt to use bones as a guide to a person’s social position, but such studies are based on assumptions that cannot necessarily be extrapolated onto ancient societies. An example of this can be seen in the assumption that people of higher status tend to take better care of their teeth and are more able to afford dental restoration should the need arise. This may be the norm for modern Western society, but one cannot be certain that this was always the case, as suggested by Suetonius’ description of the Emperor Augustus’ teeth as ‘small, few and decayed’.91 Further, it is often assumed that people from higher classes are healthier and have better hygiene than people of lower social status. However, the preserved body of a Han Dynasty (mid-second century BC) Chinese lady of known high rank showed evidence of tuberculosis and parasites, such as schistosomes, whipworms and pin worms. It is also unreasonable to interpret status on the basis of nutrition. Wealthier individuals do not always have a better diet than the rest of the population. In England, for example, from the period of the Industrial Revolution to World War II, upper-middle-class people were comparatively malnourished as a result of eating white bread and jam. This diet was, in itself, a status symbol of people who could afford food that was more processed.92

It is rather simplistic to infer social status from associated finds, like jewellery.93 Expensive jewels do not always reflect high status; for example, some people in poor communities in parts of the Indian subcontinent adorn their children and women with gold jewellery. In addition, it is possible that looting occurred whilst people were attempting to escape the eruption of Mt Vesuvius, a point Bisel acknowledged.94 It is plausible that at least some of the jewellery found in association with bodies in the Campanian sites was stolen.

The provision of names to ancient individuals is not unique to Herculaneum. It tends to be misleading, as can be seen in the case of the ascription of the name ‘Lucy’ to an australopithecine skeleton, which was discovered in 1974. This name makes it difficult to consider the skeleton as anything other than female, though the sex attribution has been questioned.95

The names and attributes that Bisel gave the skeletons she examined were not mere inventions for the National Geographic. She used these whenever she spoke about specific Herculanean individuals. She saw these characterizations merely as a tool to make them more accessible to the general public. She was well aware that some of her interpretations stretched the evidence beyond the boundaries of the discipline but considered that most people would understand that she was only suggesting a possible reconstruction.96 This approach is not at all unlike that of Bulwer-Lytton, albeit with the added benefitof modern forensic knowledge.

Deiss devoted an entire chapter to the work of Bisel in the second edition of his book on Herculaneum. It was based on the National Geographic articles and direct communication with Bisel. A portion of this chapter is devoted to an examination of the population of the town from the skeletal evidence. The rest is concerned with the description of the same individuals that were ‘refleshed’ for The Secrets of Vesuvius and the National Geographic articles. In discussing the reconstructions Deiss stated that the skeletons ‘seemed … to develop personalities of their own’.97 This is somewhat ironic in the light of the fact that Deiss dedicated this account of the victims to the memory of Amedeo Maiuri, who decried The Last Days of Pompeii for creating an imitation of the site with numerous falsifications for the sake of romance and for lacking ‘a true and direct penetration into the city and its inhabitants’.98

It could be argued that simpli fication and romanticism is acceptable practice for popular works but the same influences can also be observed in Bisel’s more scholarly work. In one article, Bisel included the National Geographic artist’s reconstruction of ‘the Soldier’ with a skeletal biography in her own words. The caption states that this individual was a soldier. She did not mention that the only evidence for this attribution was the fact that the body was found with a sword. She suggested that the ante mortem loss of three teeth might have been due to a fight and that a slight enlargement of the adductor tubercule on the femur could have been due to activities like horseback riding, tree climbing or grasping lumber between his knees for carpentry work (carpenters’ tools were found with the body).99 The accompanying illustration from the National Geographicdepicted the reconstructed individual with a horse, which reinforced the notion that the skeletal changes provided sufficient evidence to suggest that this person routinely rode. The suggestion that the three missing teeth could be explained by a fight is another example of recreating a personality based on circumstantial evidence; a soldier presumably would be more likely to be involved in that kind of activity. Bisel also employed the same, fairly specific, ages-at-death as in the National Geographic article.100 This can be observed in all the articles where Bisel reconstructed individuals from skeletal evidence.101

She was more circumspect in her other articles but the tendency to reanimate individuals persisted; for example, in one article she stated: ‘It is always more exciting to look at the individual people of an ancient site … every person has an interesting story to tell.’102The inclination to interpret socio-economic status also continued in her scientific papers. Bisel assumed that all socio-economic strata could be found in the Herculaneum sample. She stated that it was obvious that the higher classes would have been better nourished and generally healthier. She then proceeded to classify the taller and healthier individuals as members of the upper classes. She also argued that, though all classes engaged in exercise, upper-class people only did so for ‘fun’.103 One assumes that the implication of this is that skeletal remodelling due to stress associated with heavy work would indicate a person of lower social status. It is difficult to make such a judgement as it is possible to overstress the body even when exercising for pleasure.

As mentioned above, some of Bisel ’s more academic work has been published posthumously, most notably in a chapter in The Natural History of Pompeii,a volume edited by Jashemski and Meyer.104 The appellations ‘Pretty Woman’ and ‘Soldier’ have continued to be employed, as have other rather spurious interpretations of occupation and social status (see Chapter 8). While it is essential to state that it is quite likely that Bisel may have altered the way her findings were presented over time, their inclusion in academic texts continues the tradition of a culture of bodies. Some of her creations have now achieved almost legendary status and continue to be routinely described, especially in popular literature, with names and interpretations that have apparently been accepted as part of a tradition, like ‘the Ring Lady,’‘the Soldier’ and the slave girl cradling a baby from a wealthy family.105

While the in fluences of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel may be more apparent at the popular level, they are still clearly discernible in Bisel’s scientific writings. This approach is insidious because the information is presented under the aegis of science despite the fact that the conclusions extend beyond the parameters of the discipline. Ultimately, this creates a perception of the past that owes far more to sentiment than science.

Into the twentyfirst century

The early years of the twentyfirst century have been marked by the production of popular works with academic pretensions. These are often authored by acknowledged scholars, who presumably aim to make recent research on the sites destroyed by Mt Vesuvius more accessible to the general public. Such works demonstrate the continuation of the culture of bodies in Pompeii and, by association, Herculaneum.

Wilkinson, for example, in a book that was written to accompany a BBC documentary, creates a vignette based on the victims from the so-called House of Julius Polybius (IX, xiii, 1–3). He interpreted the thirteen skeletons found in two rooms on the ground floor at the back of the house as a family group.106 Of these, he singled out four for discussion. A woman wearing a considerable quantity of gold jewellery and clutching a bronze vase and a cloth bag filled with silver and bronze coins was interpreted as probably being the wife of Julius Polybius. Apart from describing her associated valuables in detail, he also provided information about her age, height, dental health and skeletal pathology. Next to this individual was found the skeleton of a girl in the final stages of pregnancy. Her age-at-death was estimated to be between 16 and 18 years. Her stature and pathological changes to her bones were also described. It was assumed that this skeleton was that of the daughter of Julius Polybius. The remains of a male were found close to these skeletons. He was described as being slumped with his mouth open and his head leaning close to the wall. His left arm was outstretched, apparently reaching for a small glass bottle, while his right arm was bent with the hand clutching at his chest. Without the benefit of any kind of residue analysis, Wilkinson suggested that this bottle might have held poison, with the implication that the victim had chosen to end his life prematurely rather than face the cataclysmic effects of the eruption. Unaccountably, this verbal tableau is completed with the statement that outside, in the garden, ‘a pet turtle lay dead’.107

Butterworth and Laurence use the skeletons that were discovered in this house in a similar fashion.108 They are no more circumspect with respect to the evidence and present a fairly elaborate portrait of the individuals and the circumstances of their demise. Two males in one room are interpreted as being about 60 years of age, the younger being Julius Polybius. The other was possibly Julius Philippus, who may, on the basis of minimal evidence, have been Polybius’ elder brother. They postulate that the pregnant girl is the 18-year-old daughter of Polybius, who was close to term with her second child. Also in the room was a woman, described as about 40 years of age and a ‘prolific childbearer’. Near them was a man in his late twenties, who was interpreted as the young woman’s husband. It was suggested that the other victims in this room were siblings or cousins of the pregnant woman, or slaves. They speculate that if all the younger people in the room were the offspring of Julius Polybius’ assumed wife, she would have been delivering babies every third year until eight years before the eruption.

They suggest that the extended family became separated into two rooms as a result of a three-year-old boy having to be chased by his ‘selfless aunt’ after he ran outside to view the event. Later a young male slave was sent to find them and they were forced to seek shelter in the nearest accessible room. The authors assume that the female was the wife of Julius Philippus and that the small boy was the son of the pregnant daughter of Julius Polybius. They conclude the scene with a fantastic reconstruction of the thoughts and actions of these people in their last moments.

These remarkable scenarios require consideration. The House of Julius Polybius was excavated between 1966 and 1978. The first attribution of ownership of this house was based on election slogans for C. Iulius Polybius that were painted at the entrance of the house and on nearby walls. Alleged ownership was transferred to one C. Iulius Philippus on the basis of the discovery of a bronze seal in a wooden cupboard under the garden portico.109 It hardly needs to be stated that these attributions of ownership are based on spurious evidence. Further, the skeletons that were found in two adjacent rooms in this house do not yield sufficient information to interpret them as those of the owner’s family, let alone enable their relationships to each other to be established. It has variously been suggested that these skeletons may have been those of slaves who were supervising repair work on the house or of the actual workmen.110
The skeletons that were discovered in this house were studied by a multinational and multidisciplinary team in the last years of the twentieth century.111 This work included an attempt to extract DNA from these bones.112 While it was possible to detect the presence of human DNA, there was insufficient preservation to identify any genetic relationship between individuals found in this house. Relationships between individuals were, therefore, based on direct observations and measurement of the skeletons. Three tentative adult couples were postulated amongst these samples, solely on the basis of sex, age at death and their possible proximity at the time of death. The last was little more than a guess, as the skeletons had been removed from their originalfind spots and stored in boxes. These assumed couples form the basis of the popular reconstructions already discussed, though the authors suggest a number of possibilities in terms of their relationships to each other as well as their status.113 Regardless, all these interpretations are highly speculative and are not supported by any clear evidence.

The only biological evidence that could possibly be used to argue for a genetic relationship between any of the individuals found in the house was the apparent discovery of spina bifida occulta on two of the sacra of the victims. However, it should be noted that the sacrum of one of these skeletons was incomplete and the identification of this abnormality was equivocal.114 Spina bifida occulta is the least significant form of spina bifida, which is the result of failure of the neural tube to fully close in the embryo. A number of conditions can occur when the neural tube fails to close. The cranial vault and the brain do not form if the tube does not close at the head end of the embryo. This condition is known as anencephaly and it is not compatible with survival after birth. If the tube fails to close at the tail end of the embryo, a range of spina bifida conditions with varying degrees of severity occur. Spina bifida occulta involves incomplete fusion of the posterior neural arch and can affect one or more segments of the sacrum. It tends to be clinically insignificant, as the underlying neural tissue tends not to be involved; only the bone of the neural arches fails to fuse. It is often only discovered incidentally when an individual is x-rayed, though the skin in the sacral region is generally marked by a hairy patch. The expression of spina bifida occulta is based on both genetic and environmental factors. It has been observed with a frequency of between 5 and 25 per cent in modern populations.115 Assuming that there were actually two cases of this disorder in the skeletal sample from the House of Julius Polybius, it was argued that the two afflicted individuals were closely related. They were the pregnant female, who was aged between 16 and 18 years of age and a child who was aged between eight and nine years. It was argued that the pregnant girl had returned to her parents’ house with her husband for the delivery of her baby.116

Another point that requires comment is the capacity of the pelvis to provide information about the number of children a woman has borne. It has been argued that it is possible to establish the number of pregnancies that have come to term from looking at the degree of pitting on the dorsal surface of the pubic symphysis of a female pelvis – the more pitting the more pregnancies.117 The pitting has been said to be a reflection of lesions caused by stress to the ligaments that connect the pelvic bones during birth. Even if this were the only reason for such bony changes, it is likely that the most damage would occur with the first birth and, at best, all the changes could tell would be that, at least, one pregnancy had come to term.118 However, there clearly must be other factors involved in the production of such pits as they can occasionally be seen on the pelvic bones of males and women who have never reproduced. The structure of the human female pelvis is a compromise between the need to have a pelvic outlet that is big enough to enable a baby’s head to exit and the fact that a narrow pelvis is the most efficient shape for bipedal locomotion. Wide female pelves can result in stress on ligaments, which presents as bony lesions indistinguishable from any produced by a pregnancy that has come to term (see Chapters 6 and 8).

The vignettes that appear in recent popular literature tend to be based on both the legendary skeletal discoveries and recent academic publications of both the Pompeian and Herculanean skeletons. The final chapter of Butterworth and Laurence’s book parallels the chapters on the eruption in theLast Days of Pompeii, with detailed descriptions, not only of the final moments in the life of the inhabitants of the House of Julius Polybius but also those of the priests in the Temple of Isis,119 the Villa of Diomedes120 and many other locations. It is notable that the recent work of physical anthropologists who have published material from Pompeii and Herculaneum can so easily be applied to such an approach. This is partially due to the fact that a number of the authors of academic publications both neglect to include information about the constraints of the discipline and extend their interpretations beyond the limitations of the evidence. As discussed above, establishing sex, age-at-death and interpretation of pathological change is fraught with difficulties. Attempts to determine genetic relationships are even more problematic (see Chapter 9) and the interpretation of marital relationships or social status solely from the skeletal record is probably futile.

Ultimately, popular culture has driven the agenda of Pompeian skeletal studies and, perhaps even more remarkably, those of Herculaneum. The influence of The Last Days of Pompeii has been so pervasive that much of the skeletal evidence continues to be presented by storytelling with a thin veneer of science.

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