Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The arbitrariness of life

I was in Ottawa, Canada for the weekend, and when I go there I look for an exhibit at a museum - it is the nation's capital and there is always something interesting. On this trip I chose the 'Pompeii' exhibit at the Museum of Civilzation.
Here is what I knew about the eruption of Vesuvius - lots of people died. This exhibit tells a lot more of the story, which is heartbreaking. The poor people suffered a rain of pumice and stones of varying sizes for many hours as they watched the column bulding out of the volcano, and had to make sense of a phenomenon they had never seen A few hours later the molten lava came down to vaporize them at high speed.
The exhibit shows how wonderfully the simplest of archaeological studies can reveal those terrible hours. The combination of the bodies with the durable nearby objects is very telling.
We have had the tsunami in the last year but in many ways this was far more crushing a story, because of the time to try to sort out what to do in this terrribly unfamiliar environment. People had twelve hours to try to make decisions about what to do. Pliny the Elder (I knew he was a nature nut but did not know he was leading, as an admiral, the Roman navy on a rescue effort) committed his life to a combined rescue and scientific mission. Pliny the Younger documented events that only seemed to make sense many years alter as he watched Vesuvius from across the bay.
For me the saddest tale was of a female body found, surrounded by numerous pieces of jewellery (the display box with this jewellery is impressive); a key piece is her bracelet inscribed 'Dominus meae ancillae'. "The master to his slave girl". Maybe I should have been more taken by the whole family found in the upstairs room of their house (you had to go upstairs as the pumice collection ascended) surrounding a young pregnant woman. Both stories are telling and teribly human.
In the end the exhibit made me feel, as I always do, terribly lucky to be living my life.
If you are near Ottawa go see this exhibit. If you are not, find a way to get there and see it.

UPDATE: The exhibit's first cast of a body is that of a dog, who had evidently been desperately climbing continually up a pile of accumulating pumice. This establishes the tone of the whole exhibit.


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