Geeky confession time.
I’m obsessed with natural disasters.
I was the kid who spent her summer vacation glued to The Weather Channel, watching the latest tropical update for signs of a hurricane, despite living in Ohio, where the possibility of such storms impacting me was nil (funny story, years later I would move to Texas and be caught in an actual hurricane — sort of took the thrill out of it). It didn’t take much to excite young me — just a slight drop in barometric pressure.
You should have seen me when Twister came to theaters. No one should be that excited about a weather movie.
It sounds a bit strange, but I even have a favorite natural disaster.
Violent, beautiful and capable of altering the entire climate of our planet in a single eruption.
Volcanoes are powerful. Volcanoes are awe-inspiring. The effects of volcanoes on our world are massive.
My first foray into the world of volcanism came when I was about thirteen years old. I visited Yellowstone National Park with my family, and, staring into the bubbling and gurgling Earth, alive with the ebb and flow of the planet’s crust, I was mesmerized.
In addition to natural disasters, I also love archaeology. While I’m no trained professional, I find the casual study of lives lived long ago utterly fascinating. It’s what drove me down into the Parisian catacombs years ago, and the union of these two passions was what thrust Pompeii to the top of my bucket list at an early age. So when Tara and I booked tickets to Rome, I knew a day trip to the ruins was non-negotiable. It was the one tour we booked months in advance, through Viator, choosing to add on a hike up to the top of Mt. Vesuvius as well.
So, let’s talk Pompeii, and the volcano that made it famous. What I learned only scratched the surface of this fascinating site, and if you’re even a casual fan of archaeology I highly recommend a visit.
Here are some of the most interesting tidbits I picked up along the way:
1) Pompeii is huge
I mean huge. The city of Pompeii spreads for almost 200 acres, and the vast majority of it has yet to be excavated. Most of the money that is earned from tourism goes toward the conservation of what has already been excavated (supposedly — more on that later).
The ruins of Pompeii are amazingly well-preserved. This is because 13 to 20 feet of ash buried the city for centuries. That ash kept fresh air and moisture from destroying the lost city, protecting its artifacts.
Once excavated, the ruins are exposed to the elements. They once again become victims to not only the assaults of nature, such as wind and rain, but to a new threat. Tourism. Pompeii is the most heavily visited tourist attraction in all of Italy. Thousands of feet pass through its streets every day. Each of those visitors contributes to the gradual wearing of the city’s excavated sections.
2) Mt. Vesuvius is half the size it once was
Today, Mt. Vesuvius stands at 4,203 feet. Before it erupted in 79 AD the dormant volcano towered as much as 8,000 feet. On the day it erupted, Mt. Vesuvius literally blew half of its existence into ash. So, where did half a mountain go? To sea level. The shoreline of the Bay of Naples was pushed back as a direct result of the volcanic eruption. Pompeii, which once sat pretty much on the coast, is now far inland.
3) Slaves doubled as seat warmers
And the winner of the “things I never gave a passing thought about” award goes to…toilet warming. One of the many sights we saw on our tour of Pompeii was an old public restroom, now little more than a square, ceilingless room with a long trench along the side. We were told that it was not uncommon during winter months for slaves to be sent in first, simply to sit on the toilet seats and warm them for their masters.
Our tour guide also explained the efficient “wiping” system, in which fresh water was piped through the aqueducts and around the perimeter of the room. Each toilet area had a little scrubby-brush-like object that those emptying their bowels would use to clean up afterwords, leaving them in the water when they left for the next person. Gotta love Roman piping.
4) Mt. Vesuvius’ caldera is a bit underwhelming — but the view is amazing
If you visit Vesuvius expecting bubbling magma, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The 30-minute trek from the drop off point to the top of the volcano is grueling with nothing but ash underfoot, and the reward comes from looking out, not in. A glance into the caldera reveals a lot of dirt and ash, but not much else.
The view out, however, is stunning. The Bay of Naples extends as far as the eye can see, only interrupted by the lurking shadow of the island of Capri, off in the distance. Even with significant haze, we were awe-struck.
What shocked me the most, though, was the sheer size of the city of Naples, spread out before me. After a disaster so profound as Pompeii, hundreds of thousands of people continue to make the shadow of Vesuvius their home. It’s a little mind-boggling, but I suppose when it only erupts every several thousand years it isn’t too dangerous.
5) Pompeii is run by the mafia…we think?
Right, so, getting back to where the money goes. Always a tricky subject in Italy, Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius is no exception. Evidently under the control of the Italian mafia, they seem to exert quite a bit of control over the area. This is, possibly, the cause behind some of the slow excavation. Even more likely, it is an explanation for the lack of appropriate conservation of the ruins that have been excavated. An example of this is the collapse of the House of the Gladiators in 2010.
Of course, nothing is advertised as “Owned by the mafia!” so it is hard to tell exactly what is happening, especially since we were only there for a few hours. What was striking to me was the number of shuttered houses on the drive up to Vesuvius that had clearly once been hotels or restaurants. We were told that the park surrounding and containing the volcano was acquired by the mafia, which in turn increased the price of land until they forced all of the businesses out, leaving only eyesores behind.
6) Pompeii body casts provide a sobering reality
Of course the highlight of any trip to Pompeii are the casts. They capture the last moments of those who perished in incredible detail, down to the clothing and eyelashes.
I was expecting them. I knew they would be a part of the tour. I was even looking forward to seeing them. I didn’t anticipate the way my heart skipped a beat, or the slight twisting of my stomach as I stared at the imprint of a person, centuries gone, forever remembered by their death throes.
For those of you who aren’t sure how the casts came to be(I know I wasn’t!), the process is really quite interesting. When a person died at Pompeii, their body was covered in ash, which quickly cooled and hardened. The body decayed, leaving behind an air pocket. During excavations, when an air pocket was found it would sometimes be filled with plaster, thus creating the casts and giving us an amazing insight into the last moments of the people of Pompeii.
The casts aren’t just of people, though. Anything that decayed over time left air pockets behind. This includes wooden doors, food, and even animals.
Piling back onto the van to Rome, we were exhausted. The tour had shown us the highlights, but we left with a sense that there was still much to be discovered.
Unable to sleep on the two hour return trip, I instead found myself reflecting on the ruins, and the lives that had been unexpectedly frozen in time. I wondered what those long-dead Romans would have thought, had they known their fates. Would they have even believe it? After all, the Romans of 79 AD did not even know volcanoes existed. They had no word for volcano. What would they think about the fact that their ghosts would remain in Pompeii, long after they had been lost to the ashes?
Have you been to Pompeii? What was the most interesting thing you learned?