What Should I Know About Pompeii?

Mary McMahon

Pompeii is an ancient Roman city which was preserved by an epic volcanic eruption in 79 CE. Thanks to the fact that the eruption was so sudden, the city has been perfectly frozen in time, allowing archaeologists to catch a glimpse of what daily life in Ancient Rome would have been like. The site of Pompeii is an extremely popular spot for tourists to visit, and research continues at the site to excavate and preserve artifacts while learning about Roman culture.

Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, preserving the city of Pompeii.
Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, preserving the city of Pompeii.

According to evidence uncovered at the site, Pompeii was settled around the sixth century BCE, and the site was no stranger to earthquakes and other geologic disturbances, as evidenced by traces of earlier volcanic eruptions and quake damage. In fact, a major earthquake in 62 CE destroyed much of the city, some of which was still under construction 17 years later when Mount Vesuvius erupted.

The huge cloud of volcanic ash spewed by Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii in 10 feet of debris.
The huge cloud of volcanic ash spewed by Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii in 10 feet of debris.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 24 August spewed a huge cloud of ash, rock, and debris across Pompeii and the surrounding landscape, burying Pompeii in as much as 10 feet (four meters) of debris in some places, along with the sister city of Herculaneum. While it is clear that people attempted to evacuate, many were caught and crushed by the debris, which also preserved the remains of lunches, tools used in daily life, an astounding amount of artwork, and a wide assortment of buildings.

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After the eruption of Vesuvius, Pompeii was abandoned, and stories about the city faded into myths and legend. Almost 1,700 years later, Pompeii was unearthed by accident, and it has been consistently excavated and studied ever since. For archaeologists, the discovery of Pompeii was quite exciting, as it allowed people to see how the Romans actually lived, preserving everything from graffiti on the streets to erotic art in brothels.

One of the most eerie sights at Pompeii are plaster casts taken of the victims. When archaeologists began excavating the site, they noticed strange voids in the ash, and realized that these voids were the last traces of decomposing human and animal remains. By injecting plaster and later resin into these voids, it was possible to make a perfect replica of the volcano's victims, frozen in their last moments, and some of these casts are on display at the sites where they were found.

Alas, with the unearthing of Pompeii, the city was put at risk. The same mounds of volcanic ash which destroyed the city and its inhabitants also preserved the contents of the site from air, moisture, corrosive materials, and other threats. As the city began to be excavated, parts of it began to decay quite rapidly, raising concerns about the fate of the site. Archaeologists today are focused on preserving as much of Pompeii and its artifacts as they can, using a variety of tools.

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