Pompeii (Romans 14)

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On August 24th, A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius, a volcano on the western coast of Italy, erupted violently, spewing lava, rock and ash as high as 19 km into the air and burying a number of cities that lay near its base. Among these was Pompeii. The historian Pliny the Younger witnessed the eruption from an island off the coast and described in detail how the daytime sky turned pitch black. Late that night Vesuvius emitted a tremendous pyroclastic surge of noxious gas and ash that covered all but the tops of a few structures and instantly killed anyone who had not yet escaped. The site was abandoned and eventually forgotten. Pompeii was rediscovered briefly in 1594, but regular excavations of the site did not begin until 1748. With a few interruptions, archaeologists have been working continuously there ever since.

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What amounted to a tragedy for the original inhabitants turned out to be a boon to Roman archaeology. Beneath its 30 foot layer of ash, Pompeii was wonderfully well preserved. Excavations revealed a large, relatively wealthy city laid out in a grid pattern. Inside the houses researchers uncovered beautiful mosaics, colourful frescoes and even the familiar warning Cave Canem (“Beware of dog”). Utensils and artistic objects revealed a great deal about the culture of Pompeii.

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Another exciting discovery within the ash was the existence of pockets that had once been occupied by the corpses of those killed by the pyroclastic surge. The bodies had eventually decomposed, leaving cavities within the dried ash. Scientists poured plaster of Paris into these cavities and created three-dimensional casts of the victims’ bodies that were so exact that specialists were able to estimate the age, probable occupation and overall level of health of these individuals.

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Taken together, these architectural, artistic and human remains have proven to be an invaluable resource for historians in reconstructing life in a Roman city during the New Testament period. Excavations have also commenced below the level of the Roman city, in order to learn more about the development of Pompeii over time. A great deal of effort and expense is being directed toward conservation as well, since pollution and human traffic pose serious threats to these ancient treasures.


 

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