I have just returned from a holiday in the South of Italy where we did the trip to Versuvius, Pompeii and Herculaneum. For those of you who are not aware, Mount Versuvius erupted in 79AD and destroyed four Roman settlements; Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae. The first two have been excavated to some extent.
Pompeii was buried under 6m of ash killing many of the inhabitants before they could escape. It attracts over 2.5 million visitors a year.
This is an area on the main forum in Pompeii. the enclosures contain artefacts that have been found over the site. Guess which two contain human remains?
Pompeii is rather unusual in that when they were originally excavating the site, Giuseppe Fiorelli, the archaeologist, found cavities within the ash. He wondered if these were where the people had been and so developed a technique of pouring plaster into these cavities before they were excavated. What this process produced was very detailed life like casts of the people who had perished at Pompeii. These casts are displayed around the site.
Some of these casts are fairly rough like this cast of a person who clearly huddled into hiding spot hoping they would be safe. Some are much more detailed like the group that were found within a garden. The story is that they were a family group trying to escape the city. The first figure does have a bag of some sort and the group is clearly a mix of adults and children. The detail captured in the face of the man is amazing.
I was prepared to believe that these were not human remains but were plaster casts of the spaces and then we came across this selection of the casts in a store within the city.
This is the cast of a four year old child. you can see the roughness of the plaster that is the same as many of the other specimens. Now look at the top of the child’s head. That looks like very smooth bone. When we got back to the UK I did a little research and found out that the 86 original plaster casts have been through a CT scanner. The remains of that child are enclosed within the plaster; the smooth surface at the top is the actual cranium. We did find multiple copies of the same casts around the city so it may well be that the originals containing human remains are not actually on display but these are the items that people come to see in Pompeii – why? What is it that attracts us to human remains?
We moved from Pompeii to Herculaneum. Herculaneum differs from Pompeii in that it was covered in pyroclastic material rather than ash and so much more of the city has been preserved including the original wooden beams. The buildings were not destroyed under the weight of the ash resulting in many two storey buildings still being present. Herculaneum suffered a pyroclastic surge which means that gases at a temperature of 250oC passed through the town at 100mph. A little ash had fallen on the town in the first day of the eruption and it was thought that most people had evacuated the coastal town. It is only in recent years (1981) that they have excavated down to the boat houses and discovered 55 skeletons with another 250 being discovered in the 1990’s.
The skeletons were found in the boat houses which are the arches at the bottom of this photo. It is the highlight of the tour and people took multiple pictures.
Its difficult to know whether these are actual human remains or not. You can find differing opinions, although the majority seem to think they may well be genuine.
I am troubled by this desire to see human remains. Why do people flock to these sites? It was clear from the crowd distribution at both sites that human remains are a big tourist attraction and there did not seem to be any qualms about photographing what were either the skeletons of people who were essentially vapourised or the cast of the final fearful moments of someone trying to escape a deadly ash cloud.
Did it add anything to the experience? Did it allow people to connect to the human tragedy? I would argue that it didn’t add anything that a model couldn’t have added but as one of my fellow tourists pointed out, that would have cost more than using the actual human remains.
I would have thought human remains couldn’t be equated to a financial equivalent, isn’t that what the Anatomy Act was all about?
Full disclosure – I am associated with the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh which, along with every other anatomical museum displays human remains. Those that are not historical have consent. I am the author of a book on William Burke whose human remains are on display and who people travel to see. It was explicitly part of his sentence that his remains be on public display. I have profited from that publication. Those profits have been shared with the museum and the Oddballs charity (you will have to attend a talk, or read the book, to find out why.)
The irony of this post is not lost on me.