When Vesuvius erupted almost 2,000 years ago it smothered two important Roman cities, Pompeii and smaller Herculaneum, under a blanket of burning volcanic ash, killing 12,000 in Pompeii alone. However the ash preserved an astonishing story of daily Roman life — the shops, streets, houses, and their contents.
Since the first excavations in the 18th century, a story has gradually unfolded — from Pompeii's weekly food markets and its boundary disputes between neighbours, to the layout of its houses, including grand, richly decorated properties, but also many homes with shops below and balconied flats above — ancient live/ work units. Painted or carved signs, as well as graffiti, tell of flats to let, local squabbles, political candidacies, pubs, and brothels.
The speed of destruction meant that donkeys were found lying next to the bakers' millstones they turned (Pompeii had 30 bakers, who ground flour in situ), and an unlucky chained dog died still guarding his owner's hallway.
In a new show at the British Museum, examples from its own collection are joined by 250 priceless items from Italy. This is a rare chance to find out what daily life was really like in AD 79.
As items were slowly excavated, a vivid snapshot emerged. Materials including marble, pottery and glass, bronze and silver, survived — but so did wood, and even papyrus. Delicate frescoes still glow, showing events ranging from love making to drinking, spinning and dining. Many mosaics are on show, too. Often displayed in the hall for effect, they could double as shop signs. A mosaic of an amphora designed to hold pungent fish sauce (garum) is proudly displayed in the hall of Aulus Umbricus Scalus, now nicknamed the Ketchup King, who built a fortune on the stinking condiment.
Eighty loaves of petrified bread were found in a baker's oven, beautifully risen, the maker's mark stamped into their crusts. Wine was drunk at every meal in Pompeii, though watered down, and there are plenty of amphorae for storing it, special vats for mixing it, and many bowl-shaped cups for swilling it.
Many items are obvious forerunners of those in use today, from a fine pestle and mortar, a funnel, and mass-pro-duced clay oil lamps, to weighing scales, tweezers, a make-up box, and beautifully crafted bowls, jars and jewellery.
Roman pottery for normal daily use was often red. A crate of 90 pieces proves that the ware, including plates and cups, was mass-produced from uni-form moulds in different parts of the empire, then shipped to its destination. Glass had been invented in about 50BC, and the Pompeian glass found ranges from storage bottles to drinking flasks. Though not used for windows, thin sheets of mica sometimes were.
Marble statues enhanced the interiors of grand "atrium" houses or their internal courtyard gardens. But marble also survived as a pub counter-top, with inset storage holes for wine or bar snacks. A woman owned the pub and employed female bar staff. Pompeii had 150 food-and-drink outlets, from takeaways to seated dining. In this lively city life went on raucously indoors and out. Both men and women owned property and ran businesses.
Those who could afford big homes displayed their wealth in an atrium, a large room for meeting. Mosaics of great beauty and complexity from the walls and floors of such rooms, along with frescoes, have survived with a brilliance of colour and line that puts many modern artists to shame. Smaller rooms led off the atrium. Another key place for show was the internal garden, open to the sky, with constant piped water flowing from beautiful bronze spouts shaped like animals. With their frescoes, fountains, statuary and benches, we see how much Pompeians relished walking, dining and relaxing in their indoor-outdoor rooms — long before we got the idea.
From the kitchens (often with their ovens right next to the privy), come big bronze cooking vessels, huge pottery amphorae for storing wine and oil, ordinary table pottery, and beautiful silver serving dishes. Most fascinating is a six-patty baking tin on a handle, and a Glirarium — a squat pottery jar to fatten little dormice in for the table. Yet, while Apicius's famous cookbook has recipes for roast parrot, evidence from drains and waste heaps shows that the most popular dish was pork. Just like today, even the owners of the flashiest houses liked simple food.
Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum will be open from March 28 until September 29 at the British Museum (britishmuseum.org; tickets £15 for adults; £12.50 16-18 years)