When you think of the ancient city of Pompeii, what image comes to mind? For me, it’s the casts of the victims of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. There is nothing more poignant than these casts of people frozen in the moment of their death. Despite this, the process of how the casts were made is something of a mystery.
For many years Pompeii and the other surrounding towns which had been destroyed were largely forgotten. They weren’t rediscovered until the 16th century, and systematic excavations and studies of the site didn’t begin until the 18th century. When Giuseppe Fiorelli became became the director of excavations in 1860, he put an end to ad hoc digging and put systems into place to document excavations and discoveries.
He also pioneered the method of taking casts of the victims.
Despite the improvements Fiorelli made to the documentation of excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, the method of creating casts wasn’t well documented, and modern day scientist continue to make discoveries about the process, as well as the people who were killed.
How did he do it?
Pompeii and the surrounding area were covered in a thick layers of volcanic ash. Over time, this hardened, and the bodies encased within rotted away, leaving a void. Fiorelli created a system of drilling into the void and inserting two tubes. Plaster was poured through one tube, while gasses trapped in the void could escape through the other tube. Once the plaster was hard, the surrounding rock could be carefully chipped away from around the plaster cast.
In recent years archaeologists have used modern technology to study Forelli’s plaster casts. Working in partnership the University of Sydney and the Pompeii Archaeological Park, are using x-ray and CT scanning to learn more about the casts, and the people they represent. They’ve been surprised to find that some of the casts contain no bones at all, and others have had metal supports inserted into them. They’ve also learnt more about the health and diet of some of the deceased. You can find more information about the Pompeii Cast Project on their website.
The work of Giuseppe Fiorelli and his colleagues preserved the final moments of many of the victims in Pompeii in such a way that decades later archaeologists and scientist are still able to piece together important information about the past. What’s more, the casts are able to evoke both fascination and empathy for people who live thousands of years ago, and that’s an achievement in itself.