Houston Museum of Natural Science ‘Pompeii’ exhibition offers a blast from the past

Much like an autumn day in 79 A.D., the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s “Pompeii: The Exhibition” presents a simple scene from the Roman Empire. The exhibit opens with a pair of rooms designed to look like a typical house in the city located on a coastal plateau near the Tyrrhenian Sea. Visitors will pass through an atrium and a triclinium, essentially a dining area.

“The idea with an exhibit like this is to make it so you almost hear voices or smell the foods,” says Dirk Van Tuerenhout, curator of anthropology at HMNS. “To take you to this brief moment back in time in this space. You can see a mosaic on the wall, a fresco. You can imagine lying down in the triclinium and having grapes fed to you.”

Those who chose grapes over heeding the natural warning signs — an earthquake followed by ominous activity from the towering Mount Vesuvius — were likely among the 2,000 killed when the volcano began to spew ash, destroying the prosperous city along with the neighboring town of Herculaneum.

The fate of Pompeii is one of those historical happenings about which most everybody knows one simple equation: city + volcano = catastrophe. With varied visuals, including 150 artifacts — carved statues, mosaics, military gear, bowls, glassware — on loan from the Naples (Italy) National Archeological Museum, “Pompeii: The Exhibition” tells a more richly realized story about the long life and two-day destruction of a city and the labored processes that have taken place in the nearly 2,000 years since to learn more about Pompeii.

When: Feb. 12 – Aug. 1

Where: Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park Drive

Details: $15; 713-639-4629. hmns.org

“Think about the sort of time capsule we put together,” Van Tuerenhout says. “People select things they feel might be interesting in 100 years. With Pompeii, the entire city is the time capsule. One day people woke up in the city, and within 48 hours, it was no more.”

Sealed under soil

The pyroclastic flow — a flow of deadly and destructive hot gas and volcanic matter — destroyed wood, cloth and leather. But other artifacts were preserved in an environment void of air, water and oxygen — factors that can erode items over time. Subsequent eruptions further sealed an environment that has been the subject of excavations over the past few centuries. These days about three-quarters of the city has been excavated.

“You had temples and public buildings made of carved stone,” Van Tuerenhout says. “Romans were famous for their bricks, and the bricks were preserved. There were milling stones used in bakeries. Large basalt stones with holes for a beam to run through so a donkey could push the beam and mill the grain. These things were all preserved.”

The slow process of uncovering Pompeii yielded a fuller sense of a thriving city estimated at 20,000 people during the reign of Titus, with all the trimmings of a prosperous Roman city: the roads, the baths, the fresh water supply.

“These guys were in many ways farther along than years later after the fall of the Roman Empire in the Dark Ages,” Van Tuerenhout says. “Before the empire went belly up, it could support cities like this, with 20,000 or more people.”

Van Tuerenhout says studies of the Roman Empire are particularly rich because they “combine archaeology with written sources.”

In the case of Pompeii, resident Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus — you may know him as Pliny the Younger — recorded in two letters some of the events of those two days. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, a naval commander, was killed trying to evacuate people remaining in the city.

“That the archaeology confirms some of what the writings talk about makes it all truly historic,” Van Tuerenhout says.

Dying in a flash

Though not part of “Pompeii: The Exhibition,” Van Tuerenhout says, an excavation of Herculaneum turned up carbonized scrolls from a library there. Proof that discovery can follow discovery, a trove of nearly 2,000 scrolls were found in the 18th century. Early efforts to translate some of the scrolls resulted in their destruction, but over the past two decades high-energy x-rays have allowed some of these preserved papyri to be read without damaging them.

“So it’s possible,” Van Tuerenhout says, “that Vesuvius by accident preserved some of the last remaining copies of writings by authors we may or may not know.”

Among the more macabre but popular draws of “Pompeii: The Exhibition” is a series of casts made of some of those killed by the pyroclastic flow.