This is an exciting place to be. The crowds can’t even put me off as I walk through the exhibition rooms – there should be crowds here, lots of them, there should be as many people as possible coming to see what was buried in Pompeii and Herculaneum by a volcanic eruption in AD79.
The exhibition is set out as if in a Roman house, starting off with the streets outside before heading in through the Atrium, visiting the garden, the bedrooms, living rooms and kitchen, showing in their domestic settings the objects, furniture, frescoes and organic material that was once buried deep beneath Mount Vesuvius’ volcanic flow.
The most notable objects are those that can rarely be seen anywhere else and those that relate to real people; when these are combined you get the real showstoppers.
One of these is a baby’s cradle. Due to the perishable nature of wood few large wooden household objects from this period are found in tact, but as the heat from the volcanic debris hit the cradle it carbonised allowing us to see what the wood once looked like, but preserved in carbon form. The cradle has curved rockers on the base and is instantly recognisable and immediately emotive. The museum label highlights the tragedy as it tells how a small baby who died in the eruption was found under blankets, still in the cradle.
A loaf of bread was also carbonised, this bears the maker’s stamp telling us it was ‘Made by Celer, the slave of Quintus Granius Verus’; and a solid cake of white pigment (made of calcium carbonate and reminiscent of a Lush bath bomb) was ‘Made by the Attii workshop’ and would have been used in painting the many frescoes we associate with the Romans, particularly in Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Other objects are fascinating in how similar they are to objects seen in our own homes today – a wooden storage chest with sliding drawer, a laundry basket that was found with clothes still in it, a garden bench and a bronze tap with a piece of lead piping still attached.
You’ll also see the controversial statue of Pan (half man-half goat) having sex with a goat, which isn’t even on full display in its home in Naples due to its bestiality connotations. And there are numerous other examples of the Roman’s more liberal view to depicting sex (although not as many as the Daily Mail would have you believe).
Alongside all of this it’s the figs and pomegranates and dormouse jar, the writing tablets with almost legible scratches still visible, the graffiti and inscriptions that look brand new, the large garden scenes and a rather bizarre cartoon like skeleton mosaic that will make you feel like you are walking through someone’s life who lived nearly 2,000 years ago.
And in one room you can even come face to face with Terentius Neo; as the baker and his wife look out at you from a wall painting you can stare into the eyes of a couple who lived in the world the British Museum has just transported you to.
Great Russell Street
28 March – 29 September 2013
Advanced booking essential