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You've Seen Fire & Rain, But Not Pompeii

Exhibition offers a rare glimpse into stunning, horrible moment in history.

It was a dark day in the town of Pompeii, back in 79 AD. The evidence seems to indicate that the citizens heard the rumbling, saw the great Mt. Vesuvius crack open, and knew there was no time to run.

Families gathered each other close, huddled together, and waited for the end. After two days of a rain of ash and pumice, the area disappeared.

In 1749, the town was rediscovered, and excavations continued on through 1860. It was during this period of the work where holes in the floors of compacted ash were found, holes with very distinct patterns. Workers mixed and injected a plaster into the spaces, and what they found when the forms released the concoction was astonishing—and more than a bit upsetting.

Preserved in the hot ash of Vesuvius were the shapes of the people, frozen at the moment of their demise. Much of their physical evidence was lost to decay and time, but the plaster retrieved something of an echo of their existence, with several of the castings showing unimaginable detail.

Discovery Times Square, 226 West 44th St., New York, is hosting "Pompeii the Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius." The show features more than 250 artifacts from the excavations, including art, objects and the largest collection of body casts ever organized in one place.

You can witness the dark side of natural history, and peer into a world that was lost over 2000 years ago. Discovery Times Square, a museum wing of the Discovery media empire, promises a once-in-a-lifetime journey into this historic occurrence, which is why we've selected it for this installment of Day Tripper, a weekly look at destinations that are out of town, but in reach, and worth the trip.

DAY TRIPPER DIGEST

Estimated Travel Time: About 50 minutes by car, in decent traffic, but you've got other options as well.

Why it’s Worth the Trip:  Seldom does someone get a chance to look at history up close, and because of the scale of the Pompeii exhibit, there might not be something this complete on the subject in the Tri-State Area for many years. Take this opportunity now while it is available.

How to Get There from Here: It's New York, so you've got your pick of transit options. See the museum's directions page for pointers.

You’ll Probably Get Hungry: The question is not whether you can find a place to eat. The question is what you're in the mood for. It's Times Square, so there's Ruby Foo’s Chinese, steak at Palm, seafood at Blue Fin, Fresco Tortillas, Carmine’s, the Hard Rock Café ... the list goes on and on. Looking for more choices? For a starting point, check out Mapquest's finds near the museum (every one of those little blue dots is an eatery.

While You’re in the Area:  There is plenty of shopping to be done, but be warned—you'll be in a tourist area, and prices reflect it. Instead, try some of the other attractions. While Toys 'R' Us is a store, it is also home to an indoor ferris wheel. Maybe Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum is more up your alley, or even Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Odditorium. And if you really need to see something strange, get tickets to the temperamental Broadway spectacle Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark.

In order to understand what a visitor will find at the exhibit, it's important to know what happened to the people at the base of Mt. Vesuvius in the first place. For those answers, Patch contacted Dr. James Reynolds, associate professor of geology at Brevard College, North Carolina. He studied the plaster casts and provided insight into just how destructive the Vesuvius eruption was, and how amid all that, such a detailed artifact could remain behind.

Could you explain what a pyroclastic flow is and, exactly what did it do to Pompeii during the eruption of Vesuvius?

A pyroclastic flow occurs when an explosive eruption causes the magma chamber to be shattered into ash. This usually occurs with viscous magmas rich in silica and having a relatively low water content. As the hot magma rises, the gases dissolved in the magma expand. Eventually, that internal pressure shatters the rock and blows off the top of the volcano, shooting an ash column high into the atmosphere. The ash tends to stay in the atmosphere above the volcano because of the upward flow of energy coming out of the crater. This is analogous to the air jet shot into a mass of ping pong balls for the state lottery drawing. When the eruption stops, all of that ash falls toward the ground but so much is falling out that the air beneath is compressed and the ash rides (flows) down on top of the compressed air with virtually no friction, analogous to an air hockey table. It can move up to 100 km/hr. In the case of Pompeii, the flow traveled 8 km right at the city and buried it. None of the other towns near the volcano were affected by that particular flow. Other towns that were destroyed, notably Herculaneum, were buried by other phases of the same eruption.

The people who lived there were essentially frozen in the ash. Was the ash that dense in the original fallout, or were the people killed by the heat and the ash around them condensed over time?

The ash was probably moderately dense but it pushed a cloud of hot loose ash in front of it. Most people probably died of a combination of suffocation/burning before the main cloud buried them a few seconds later. Those still alive would have been killed instantly once it hit.

Who discovered the holes that eventually received the plaster from which the body casts were made?

The holes were discovered in the initial excavation. At first they didn't know what they were but eventually, someone figured it out and filled a hole with plaster to make a cast.

What can the forms from Pompeii tell today's scientists who are studying volcanic action and effects?

That's a tough question to answer. Most people appear in resigned poses that indicate that they knew the end was at hand. It was impossible to run away from the flow; it was moving too fast. Because some of the people were sitting upright, it suggests that they were in a protected area so the main flow did not bowl them over. Instead, the loose ash swirled around them and quickly settled, burying them.

"Pompeii the Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius" runs until Sept.  5.

MindyO May 15, 2012 at 03:14 PM
Is the exhibit going to travel anywhere else?

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