Cemetery of the Week #79: the Archaeological Site at Ancient Pompeii

Tomb outside the walls of Pompeii

Ancient Pompeii
Pompei Scavi
Via Villa dei Misteri 2
Pompeii, Italy
Porta Marina Superiore ticket phone +39 081 8575348/9
Buried: August 24, 79 AD
Size: 165 acres
Number of interments: unknown, but estimated at 2000
Open: April 1 to October 31 from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Last admission is at 6 p.m. November 1 to March 31 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last admission is at 3:30 p.m.
Closed: January 1, May 1, and December 25

During the Roman Empire, the Law of the Twelve Tables forbade burial or cremation inside Roman towns. Without embalming, bodies needed to be taken care of quickly. Notable or wealthy families might be granted space to build their tombs right outside the city walls. The poorer or less important you were, the farther your survivors had to carry your body to have it cremated.

From the ramparts looking out over the maze of buildings excavated from the volcanic debris, dead Pompeii seems enormous. Some villas have red tile roofs — modern restoration work — but most remain mere walls. In the background stands the murderer, Vesuvius, a little more than five miles away.

In 1748, almost 1700 years after the Roman city of Pompeii was wiped from the map, the discovery of the first tombs outside its walls on the old road to Noceria gave the world of glimpse of Roman mortuary customs.

The mausoleums look like square or rectangular boxes, built of simple bricks or volcanic stone, some faced with remnants of marble. Michael Grant’s Cities of Vesuvius reports that “The interiors of the tombs [had been] magnificently painted; and one of these edifices, closed by a single pivoted slab of marble made to present the illusion of a double door, contained extensive funeral furniture, including several urns and lamps, a gold seal ring, a miniature terracotta altar, two wine jars, and bottles of scent.” Of course, all the tombs have long since been looted of their expensive contents.

Barchilla’s tomb

One of the grandest Pompeian tombs is a large drum-shaped building with a modern marble plaque that remembers Barchilla. Although weeds sprouted from its roof when I visited — and parts of its stonework have been replaced with anachronistic stone and cement — the mausoleum stood in magnificent solemn stolidity.

Other tombs take the form of small temples with round or square pillars holding up their roofs. High overhead lurk shadowy figures, larger-than-life portrait sculptures of people whose ashes had reposed below. Unlike the Renaissance sculptures of saints guarding their tombs in Rome, these statues might actually have been carved from life.

The discovery of the tombs at Pompeii altered grave ornamentation throughout the Western world. After archaeologists excavated urns in the tombs (where they’d held sacramental water used to wash the corpses or ashes from cremations), stone carvers engraved urns on headstones that can still be found throughout Europe and the United States.

I was surprised to discover that the external necropolises (there are two at Pompeii) did not contain all the dead of the ancient city.

Pompeii had been a market town, home to 20,000. In 62 AD, a small earthquake caused damage to the city still being repaired seventeen years later, but the mountain appeared to go back to sleep. What Pompeians didn’t know was that the quake hadn’t eased the volcano’s internal pressure. Instead, gasses built up until they blew off the mountain’s crown. Rocks flew from the volcano, raining down to crush the city five miles away. Constant tremors flung down roofs and walls on people who’d just sat down to lunch. Most survivors grabbed what they could and fled.

Others, who remembered the previous earthquake, gathered provisions and hunkered down in their wine cellars to wait out the eruption. Some, like the priests of the Temple of Isis, spent too long collecting up their treasures. Everyone who did not flee died in the city. More than 1500 bodies have been found. Others are still being discovered. At this point, 20% of the buried city has yet to be excavated.

Vintage postcard of two bodies cast in plaster at Pompeii

Together in Pompeii speaks of the numbers of skeletons recovered in various places around the city. The soft parts of the buried bodies dissolved over the centuries, leaving bones inside people-shaped cavities in the volcanic ash and debris. One of the later archaeologists guessed that he could fill the holes with plaster and see the shapes of people long gone.

Over the ramparts from the road to Noceria, in the Garden of the Fugitives, stands a greenhouse that shelters plaster casts of bodies of dead Pompeians. A range of people lay crumpled under the glass. The lumpy figures are gray, as if modeled out of ashes. The rough surface of their skin looks like overlapping scales or the ruffled shape of feathers. The details of their clothes are smudged, but their gaping mouths show they’d struggled to pull in one more breath as the pyroclastic flow buried them.

Legs drawn up toward their torsos, they stretch their arms out as if the city wall could save them. Thirteen contorted figures are spaced pretty evenly, not laying atop each other, so it’s simple to distinguish between genders: the men were larger, with muscular legs. A mother reached toward her toddler. A man’s arm extended toward his wife.

Vintage postcard of Pompeiian victims and artifacts at the National Museum in Naples

I couldn’t get a good photo of the casts remaining at the death scenes in Pompeii, but my postcard collection contains several images of plaster casts displayed at the National Museum in Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli). Apparently, the casts are no longer made in Pompeii, because they destroy the delicate skeletons within.

As many as 2.5 million people pay their respects at the ruins of Pompeii each year.

Useful links:

The official website

Pompeii tourist information

After some buildings have collapsed, government funding will help preserve Pompeii

Information about the plaster casts

Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Naples

Other Roman-era tombs on Cemetery Travel:

The Mausoleum of Augustus

The Pantheon

The Catacomb of St. Sebastian

5 responses to “Cemetery of the Week #79: the Archaeological Site at Ancient Pompeii

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