Naples – The great disaster on August 24, A.D. 79

Truly this is not a pleasant sight, and yet so fascinating is it that one can hardly turn his eyes away. These bodies were discovered in September, 1853, and taken to the Museum at Naples, but afterwards they were brought back to Pompeii, where they still re-main. At first, when bodies were disinterred, they fell to pieces in the handling, and by the action of the elements ; but, finally, they were preserved in the same form in which they were found, by an ingenious process, suggested by Fiorelli, which was to pour liquid plaster into the mold of hardened lava and ashes in which they were discovered. This plaster having been allowed to harden formed a wonderfully perfect outline of the body, preserving every attitude and expression. We feel these are not statues, but veritable human bodies embalmed by Vesuvius in a casting of lava, ” which reproduced the clothes, the flesh, nay, almost even the appearance of life.” These are no Egyptian mummies – black, withered, hideous – but men and women who have just died. Some of the bodies have a calm and peaceful look, but others have a ghastly appearance, as when the bones protrude here and there where the flowing lava did not completely envelop the limbs. Let us examine each one separately.

In the first case is the body of a large man, lying upon his back; his face is full of repose, as though, after a weary day, he was enjoying the delights of a refreshing sleep ; a smile hovers about his lips and his whole attitude, as well as the position of his arms and limbs, shows no sign of pain or struggle. He must have died calmly. His apparel, only part of which we can see, is interesting-the tightly fitting trousers, the laced sandals, the soles of which were nail-studded; on his finger he wears an iron ring; his eyes and hair have entirely disappeared, but his stubby mustache is clearly visible, as though his mouth were stronger than his head, his speech more virile than his brains. Altogether, the man has a kindly yet dignified and resolute bearing.

The man in the next case shows evidences of struggle ; he is younger than the first victim, and his bent limbs and drawn arms indicate that he died fighting for his life ; his features are remarkably well pre-served.

Of the victims in the other cases, one is a woman, near whom was found a small pile of silver coins, two silver vases, some keys and a few jewels. She was escaping with these treasures when she fell in the little narrow street ; her hand is broken and the bone protrudes; the other hand is closed convulsively, and the nails have entered the flesh. She looks as though she had suffered intensely. Her features, headdress, clothes, and even the rings on her fingers, can be easily recognized, and the form indicates that of a delicate but beautiful woman.

Here also is a middle-aged woman, having on lier finger an iron ring; her left leg is raised and bent, and her features are contorted as though with great pain. Behind her was found a young girl, probably her daughter, as she was evidently following her. The child, for she was little more, had lifted her dress over her head, evidently to protect her face from the deadly vapor and falling ashes. She was found with her face to the ground. The texture and pattern of her dress are seen with remarkable clearness. Her finger bones protruded through the thin coating of lava, and one hand is raised and half open, as though she held her dress before her mouth in her attempt to ward off the falling ashes that she might breathe more freely.

Another’s arms are thrown wildly above her head. The men seem to have died more easily than the women, probably because, as the women began to be overwhelmed, they became entangled with their flowing robes, which increased their struggles.

Along the side of the wall you notice the wine and water jars taken from wine shops and houses. In this room, also, are skeletons of cats and dogs and horses, while in a lava dish is the skeleton of a sucking pig which had evidently just been prepared for dinner.

As I stood and gazed on these victims of one of the world’s greatest tragedies, it all became so real and so near, that the very air of the room grew close and suffocating; and while I fain would have lingered beside these silent sufferers who held me with magnetic power, still I was compelled, at length, to turn away and seek the sunlight and the vitality of the outer air.

“What wonder this?-we ask the lymphid well,

O Earth ! of thee-and from thy solemn womb What yield’st thou?-Is there life in the abyss – Doth a new race beneath the lava dwell? Returns the Past, awakening from the tomb? The earth, with faithful watch, has hoarded all!”

We have seen the buried city, we have seen its dying inhabitants, but we have not seen any of the articles with which they furnished their houses and transacted their business. In order to do so we shall have to visit the Museum at Naples, for these things were all removed to that place when first discovered.