If the world as we know it were to end today, how would future civilizations remember Houston? What would they do with the Astrodome, the Space Center complex, the sculptures that line Buffalo Bayou and Hermann Park? What would they learn about us? What artifacts would they extract from our neighborhoods, our homes, our rooms?
These are questions raised by Pompeii: The exhibition, the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s breathtaking journey to ancient Rome is scheduled to begin on February 13. Combining modern multimedia documents, a reproduced Roman villa, casts of human remains and 150 artefacts, including 10 objects never before seen in the United States – on loan from the National Archaeological Museum of Naples in Italy, the museum transports visitors close to 2,000 years through the past to ancient Rome, offering them an unprecedented glimpse into the daily life of Roman citizens.
Much of our understanding of human history comes from incomplete portraits of distant societies which, despite our noblest efforts, we still struggle to understand. From the pyramids of Giza in Egypt to the Mayan temples in Mexico, archaeological evidence often favors the elites of society, who possessed the means to build sprawling edifices capable of withstanding the test of time. Such artefacts are essential to our understanding of ancient cultures, but they are still only parts of a much larger whole.
The ancient Roman city of Pompeii, however, is exceptional. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, the city was frozen in a state of frantic panic, covered in volcanic ash and pumice stone. Preserved for more than a millennium until its discovery at the end of the 16the century, the snapshot of Pompeii in time offers a holistic picture of life as it was.
“It really is a time capsule,” said Dirk Van Tuerenhout, anthropology curator at HMNS. Houstonia. “What you get is a city that has turned dark.”
The discovery of Pompeii precipitated the modern field of archeology and greatly improved our knowledge of ancient Roman culture. During excavations of the city over 250 years ago, roads and residences were found relatively intact beyond the initial volcanic damage. Stunning frescoes that would otherwise have faded or collapsed are some of the earliest examples of Roman painting, and intricate mosaics and pottery contribute to Pompeii’s status as a “treasure” for classical art. Some of the most fascinating objects, however, identify the most common everyday aspects of Roman life.
“There was graffiti,” says Tuerenhout. “Just as there are tags on the walls today, there were scrapings on the walls in the past on a whole range of subjects. Some of these posts reflect the fanciful scribbles that can be found in a bathroom cubicle today; Tuerenhout compares the others to “Yelp’s first reviews,” comments carved on the outside of restaurant walls.
The ongoing excavations of Pompeii continue to reveal other surprising facets of ancient Roman culture. According to Tuerenhout, the HMNS exhibit included a section on “Roman fast food,” which consisted of roadside stalls where city residents could pass for a quick bite. Recently, archaeologists search one of those stalls, which featured “beautifully preserved paintings” of a rooster and a pair of ducks, likely part of the stall’s daily menu.
“It was McDonald’s of the day,” he jokes.
Tuerenhout, who has worked with HMNS for over 20 years, hopes visitors take note of these commonalities between Pompeii and modern life. Although it existed long before today, Pompeii was filled with people who, like us, resided in a bustling city, relished in fine visual arts, dined at fast food outlets, and expressed their opinions wherever they could.
“It makes it personal,” he says. “Ancient Rome came and went, so here’s a thought: How long are we going to persist? “
Pompeii: The Exhibition is exposed Saturday, February 13, 2021–Monday, September 6, 2021. Visitors are encouraged to purchase tickets in advance online at www.hmns.org but can also purchase tickets in person at the HMNS box office.