History Viewed in Real Time : Lin's Blog: Musings

History Viewed in Real Time

by Lin Waterhouse on 03/10/13

One of my Facebook friends Steve Colyer posted a set of truly beautiful and haunting photos from the old-world Italian cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae, Oplontis and Boscoreale. These Italian communities were lost to the world in late August AD79 when an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius sent a blast of deadly heat and gases into the towns killing the populace as they slept or went about their early-morning duties.

Following their probably (and hopefully) instantaneous deaths, the bodies of those who had lived in those cities were covered with a thick layer of molten lava. Once cooled, that shell of rock preserved the world of  these ancient Italians to lie hidden for almost 1800 years, a time capsule of Roman life in the first century AD.

I remember seeing many of these same photos in an edition of Life magazine when I was a child. I was fascinated by the stark beauty of them then. Today, I find them just as compelling.

The people of those Italian cities were enjoying a good life of prosperity and comfort in a time when Roman culture was at its apex. They must not have had warning of the dire state of the volcano with which they lived. Perhaps they were used to its grumbling and spitting nature and never suspected that it would unleash sudden and horrific death and destruction on them.

Surely if they had known, they would have taken their children and their belongings to safer ground. Maybe some people did, and the ones we see turned to stone in these photographs were the doubters and naysayers oblivious to the power and threat of Vesuvius.


We are all voyeurs of a sort as we view these pictures. I'm touched by the spectacular fresco of a man and his wife discovered in what was probably a middle class dwelling in Pompeii. The bodies of an adult male and female were not found in the ruins; however, the bodies of seven children lie preserved for posterity in a room of that house. Did the parents escape? Surely, they would never have left their children behind. Maybe they were incinerated to ash leaving no trace of their presence. Had they gone out for an early morning jog when the cataclysm occurred? We'll never know.

Other bodies lie in the streets. Were they running from the horror spewing from their mountain or were they simply going about their business that morning. We know it was morning from historical reports of the deadly eruption and because so many of the bodies still lay in their beds. Men and women -- and in some cases, children -- cuddled together in sleep (or in fear) where they died. The pets and farm animals of the town were also cast in volcanic rock for our wonder. A long-nosed dog and what appears to be a pig pique our questions about the lifestyles and traditions of that time and place.

If our world suddenly came to a lurching halt and we were preserved for people two thousand years in the future to study, I wonder what pictures of life would we project. Would future voyeurs understand children cuddled in bed with what the citizens of much-advanced societies would surely view as wildly primitive communication devices that we know as ipods, and what would they think of bedside tables and desks in our homes piled with cellphones, laptops, Kindles and chargers -- all ever-present in our modern homes. Would they chuckle or maybe shed a tear over our abrupt passing?

To me, these ancient ruins of even-more ancient cities are part of the fascination of history. As life rolls on, our curious eyes can look back upon people, flesh and blood just like us, who lived, loved, and toiled in a world forever lost to our comprehension. Look at the pictures and see what you think.

Comments (2)

1. JudyAnn Lorenz said on 3/10/13 - 06:58PM
We used to live in a house where there was a slot in the medicine cabinet labeled razor blades. I've wondered what archeologists would make of a pile of razor blades in the studs of the houses.
2. Lin Waterhouse said on 3/11/13 - 06:31AM
Judy: I remember those slots, too. What do you suppose people 2,000 years from now will use to remove (or add) hair. Will they be as obsessed with it as we are? Don't you wish we had a peekhole into the future?

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