At the new “Pompeii: The Immortal City” exhibit making its U.S. debut at the Science Museum of Virginia, visitors can explore the ruins of an ancient city in a brand-new way.
Pompeii has always had a fascination about it. The ancient city was destroyed by fire and brimstone and preserved forever in volcanic ash.
The exhibit starts with an immersive film that wraps visitors completely, placing you inside the heart of the city at the time of the volcanic eruption in 79 A.D.
You see the buildings, the volcano and the wave of ash that engulfed the city. You see the bodies, piled on top of one another and preserved in ash.
It’s a dramatic opening to a powerful exhibit.
Richmond is the first U.S. stop of the traveling exhibit that comes from Belgium, bringing with it 100 original artifacts.
“Many times when we look back at the past, we think of people as being very primitive and not nearly like what things are like in modern times. But you’re going to see a lot of things that will connect Pompeii to modern-day Richmond,” said Richard Conti, chief wonder officer. “This exhibit shows the depth, breadth and level of sophistication of an ancient culture.”
The first part of the exhibit focuses on the architecture of the city.
Visitors can step between recreated pillars of Pompeii to explore artifacts pulled from the ruins: a coiled serpent bracelet, glass perfume bottles, pitchers, clay jars decorated with faces, and bracelets of bronze and glass.
At the time of its devastation, Pompeii was in the midst of rebuilding the city from an earthquake that struck in 62 A.D. Cranes, winches and pulleys are seen in the first part of the exhibit.
A film digitally recreates the buildings that were destroyed: the Temple of Apollo; the Grand Theatre; and an opulent house with a statue of a figure in Roman mythology, the faun.
Pompeii was a bit of a party town, Conti said. The people of Pompeii were known for their wine and their bread.
One of their glasses, the rhyton, had a hole at the bottom and couldn’t be put down, which was a signal that the wine should keep flowing. A specially designed glass siphon was used for drinking wine from a horizontal position.
“That looks dangerous,” said a visitor, laughing.
There were 30 bakeries in the city. A round, black loaf of bread is even on view at the exhibit.
“Who’d expect a loaf of bread from 79 A.D. to be recovered?” Conti asked.
Some of the items may surprise the visitor — like the fact that the people of Pompeii raised dormice, which were considered a delicacy for their tender meat.
Even though the civilization was 2,000 years old, the people of Pompeii were advanced, with running water, aqueducts, a sewer system and forced air heat.
There are some beautiful fresco paintings, brilliantly preserved, as well as medical instruments, a sundial and an ancient chandelier.
The last room is an emotional one with two body casts from Pompeii at the center. They are of a woman and an enslaved person, face down, in their moments of death.
A shower of ash is projected upon the walls, along with digitally reproduced photos of the people of Pompeii and the words “They Are Still Among Us” disappearing into the mist.
At the time of its destruction, Pompeii had an estimated 12,000 inhabitants.
The exhibit includes a brief video that explains how the body casts were made from the nearly 1,150 body imprint outlines uncovered in Pompeii.
Besides the 100 original artifacts in the exhibit, many of which have never been seen in the U.S., the exhibit has 40 screens and 3 miles of cables, which took a team of 10 installers to prepare for the Richmond debut.
Audio guides also follow five characters throughout the exhibit, such as a child, a woman and a winemaker.
“The volcanic eruption of Pompeii was devastating, but from an archaeological standpoint, it was able to preserve a whole culture,” Conti said.