How Pompeii Worked

The Rediscovery and Excavation of Pompeii

frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii
Some claim that the frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries (seen here) depict a woman being initiated into the cult of Dionysus. Leisa Tyler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Many writings from ancient Rome survive. Still, the ruins of Pompeii offer a direct look at life 2,000 years ago, especially for lower-class people and slaves. A lot of the written history of ancient Rome that survives focuses on politics, military matters and the activities of wealthy people. The perfectly preserved shops, homes and artwork of Pompeii give us an unparalleled glimpse into daily life in the city.

In the immediate aftermath of the eruption, some effort was made to recover belongings or salvage valuables from Pompeii. For instance, the temples and the public forum are missing the statues typical in other Roman cities, and there are tunnels through the ruins dating to the centuries after they were buried [source: Ling]. But at some point, the city faded from memory. If it were thought of at all, the site was called simply la Cività, "the City." Part of the ruins of Herculaneum were rediscovered in the 1500s, but serious digging and extraction of artifacts didn't begin until the 1700s [source: Etienne]. Throughout the 1700s, both Pompeii and Herculaneum were plundered by a parade of kings, queens and other dignitaries who wanted ancient statues and mosaics for their palaces.

In the 1800s, archaeologists began more constructive work, excavating and clearing the hardened ash from buildings with the purpose of preserving what they could and learning as much about ancient Roman life as possible. Still, their methods were somewhat primitive. Damage to the site occurred as it was exposed to weather, and artifacts were moved to safer locations. Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the Pompeii excavations in 1860. This turned out to be a landmark event for the archaeological efforts at the ruins, as Fiorelli introduced careful methods of clearing and recording the positions of everything found in the ruins.

In 1863, Fiorelli tried something new with some of the remains he had found. After victims of the eruption died, they were covered in ash, which eventually hardened. Their clothing and flesh decomposed, leaving behind skeletons encased in hollow cavities. Fiorelli injected a plaster called gesso into the cavities, let it set overnight, then cleaned away the hard ash. The result was a detailed casting of the victims' bodies at the time of death, including their skin, clothes, facial expression and what they were wearing. The casts were so detailed that observers were even able to examine patterns some of the victims had shaved into their pubic hair. Sometimes the bones are even visible, depending on where they sat once the body had decayed.

Reproductions and photos of Fiorelli's casts became a sensation; people even put them on stereoscope cards in the 1800s. The shocking images of ancient people with expressions of agony were as captivating then as they are today. The attraction is complex — there are elements of macabre horror, fascination with the apocalyptic destruction of the city and the humanization of ordinary people from 2,000 years ago, ironically brought to life in their moment of death.

Gradually, more and more of the dead city was uncovered. Archaeologists referenced notable features when naming larger manors and estates. For example, the House of the Faun is named for a bronze statue it contained, while the evocatively named Villa of the Mysteries gets its name from a series of frescoes — paintings made using water-based pigments on freshly laid lime plaster — with a bright red background, in which a woman is inducted into the cult of Dionysus (though this interpretation is debated). Today, roughly two-thirds of the city has been cleared of ash [source: Amery and Curran].