A slew of articles released this fall have trumpeted big developments in what we know about the health of residents of Pompeii—before they were cooked to death in the violent 79 C.E. eruption of Vesuvius, that is. One of the most frequently repeated new pieces of information is that the Pompeians had excellent dental health, something that shouldn’t be all that surprising considering we’re dealing with a population that never encountered refined sugar. In fact, the teeth of human remains from Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum are not at all a new field of study. New data is always welcome in a field so full of holes as ancient Roman history, but new data is really all that the findings are.

What is brand new, perhaps surprisingly, is the treatment of the plaster casts that encase the bones as human remains, or at least something similar to them. This wasn’t always the case. First produced in the 1860s, the plaster casts are an ingenious recognition and manipulation of what happens when you combine the chemistry of a volcanic eruption with that of the decay of flesh. They’re also a tourist attraction, and have been treated as curiosities and even works of art.

Here’s what would have happened to you if you were a Pompeian who didn’t flee the city in time. The sky would have gone dark around midday, following an enormous eruption of rock and gas out of the volcano and over the surrounding area. You would have grabbed what you could from your house—a few coins, some jewelry, a religious talisman, your kid—and attempted to make your way out of the city and toward the beach, where, you hoped, you could be evacuated by boat. In addition to the darkness, earthquakes would have made it almost impossible to keep your bearings, and the falling rocks, though relatively light pumice, would have started to accumulate so thickly that they caused buildings to collapse.

Maybe, at this point, you would have decided to find shelter, to wait out the night and hope that the nightmarish apocalypse outside would end. You and your loved ones would have huddled together in the sturdiest room you could find, praying to whatever god you trusted most. Or maybe you would have kept pushing through the dark streets, the ash making it hard to breathe. Possibly you would have even made it to the beach, where you would have seen the wild waves caused by the earthquakes crashing violently against the shore and finally understood that no one was coming to save you. Wherever you were, the massive pyroclastic surge that hit the city around dawn would have killed you, your family, your neighbors, and your dog on contact.

As you died, your body would have seized into an almost fetal shape. When you would be found almost two thousand years later, you would look as if you were cowering in fear, trying to protect yourself. Pier Paulo Petrone, an anthropologist who has studied the human remains from Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum, describes the reason for the pose in brutally frank terms:

Cadaveric spasm commonly involves groups of muscles and only exceptionally the entire body. This last condition has been described in battle situations and in historical eruptions, due to the exposure of victims to extreme heat… the presumed self-protective stance observed in several Pompeii victims was definitely assumed postmortem, due to heat induced limb flexures that are a result of dehydration and shortening of tendons and muscles, a stance known as “pugilistic attitude”.

In other words, the “protective” positions of the victims are nothing more than the result of involuntary muscle contractions that seized their bodies as they died. The Pompeians are not preserved as they were in life, but as they were literally at the moment of death.

The heavy rain that fell after the eruption turned the ash of the pyroclastic flow into a kind of cement-like paste, which would have hardened around your body as it dried and preserved the details of your clothes, your face, and even your fingernails in relief. As your body decayed over time, the hardened ash stayed firmly in place, creating a negative-space version of you, with only your dry bones inside. There they would stay until a team of archaeologists filled the cavity with plaster, broke through the ash, and put that negative-space you on display in a museum for Victorian tourists to swoon over.

The casts were the brainchild of Giuseppe Fiorelli. An Italian nationalist archaeologist, Fiorelli was appointed director of the Pompeii excavations immediately following the Risorgimento, or unification of Italy, in 1860. Before unification, Naples and the surrounding area had been the property of the Bourbon kings since 1735. The Bourbons were interested in collecting antiquities from Pompeii, but not in any scientific way–rather, they wanted curios and works of art. Artifacts were removed from the site as they were found, without any documentation of where they had come from. Visiting aristocrats would be taken on casual tours of the ancient city, which was closed to the public.

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Uncovering the Ruins of the Temple of Isis at Pompeii, second half of the 18th century, by Pietro Fabris (via Wikimedia Commons)

After the unification of Italy, Pompeii became a nationalist project. The excavated parts of the city were opened to everyone, and Fiorelli set about modernizing the excavations. One of his innovations was to fill the cavities left by decomposed bodies with plaster, creating eerie models of the moment of the Pompeians’ deaths.

The earliest casts, made before Fiorelli perfected his process, are grotesque, although this didn’t detract eager tourists from making pilgrimages to see them. Mark Twain saw one, popularly known as the “Pregnant Woman” on account of her distended belly, during the trip that would inspire his 1867 Innocents Abroad:

The woman had her hands spread wide apart, as if in mortal terror. And I imagined I could still trace upon her shapeless face something of the expression of wild despair that distorted it when the heavens rained fire in these streets so many ages ago.

Pompeii pregnant woman

The “Pregnant Woman,” woodcut from the Guida di Pompei Illustrata, c. 1901 (via Wikimedia Commons)

As time went on, Fiorelli and his team improved their cast-making technique, and by 1888, twelve casts were on display in the little on-site museum built to house the collection in 1875. Some were cast well enough that they showed extremely fine detail, like the famous model of the guard dog, whose collar and toenails are clearly visible.

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Cast of a dog killed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, souvenir card with photograph by Giorgio Sommer, 1863. (via Wikimedia Commons)

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Giacomo Brogi, interior of the Pompeii Museum, 1870s (via Wikimedia Commons)

The casts immediately became a cultural phenomenon. European and American tourists who could afford it flocked to Naples and Pompeii to see them in person, and those who couldn’t collected and passed around stereoscope cards of the body casts so that they could gawk at them in 3-D at home.

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Stereoscope card, c.1868 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In Pompeii in the Public Imagination from its Rediscovery to Today, the classicist Shelley Hales writes of the Victorian fascination with the casts:

The material re-emergence of these still-living bodies from nothingness rendered them as manifested phantoms; psychical imprints of past life, caught in plaster. They were less like the posed post-mortem photograph and more like the ‘spontaneous’ spirit photograph, itself a kind of empirical successor to romantic imagination. Just as intuition might clairvoyantly summon the past, the photographic plate detected and reproduced the invisible dead.

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Detail of a catalogue of attractions in Naples and Pompeii, c. 1865. (via Wikimedia Commons)

As fascinated as the Victorians were with death, it wasn’t only morbid curiosity that drew crowds to the casts. One London art critic was positively inspired by the four plaster casts he saw on his visit to Pompeii in 1866, which he describes in rapturous terms:

Art could not produce anything more fully, effectively expressive, more thoroughly satisfactory to the artistic judgment, than these two figures turned away from each other, at last, in the final awful moment; nor could there be a finer tragic theme for the sculptor than in imagination to unfold these dreadful wrappings, and give us to look upon their fully-discovered lineaments. At first it seemed as if two more figures of Niobe’s children, calcined by the volcanic fires, had been preserved in this first of museums.

Another comparison to fine art came from the photographer Thomas Dyer, who in 1867 compared the plaster casts to one of the most celebrated sculptures of antiquity, the Dying Gaul.

Pompeii dying gaul

Photography of the Dying Gaul by Giorgio Sommer, c.1870 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The same Dyer wrote about two casts of women in his Pompeii: Its History, Buildings, and Antiquities as if they too were works of art. Of one, a cast of a teenage girl, he says:

Her legs are drawn up convulsively; her little hands are clenched in agony… The form of her head is perfectly preserved. The texture of her coarse linen garments may be traced, and even the fashion of her dress, with its long sleeves reaching to her wrists; here and there it is torn, and the smooth young skin appears in the plaster like polished marble.

A cast of another woman is described as follows:

Her linen head-dress, falling over her shoulders like that of a matron in a Roman statue, can still be distinguished… One arm is raised in despair; the hands are clenched convulsively; her garments are gathered up on one side, leaving exposed a limb of beautiful shape. So perfect a mould of it has been formed by the soft and yielding mud, that the cast would seem to be taken from an exquisite work of Greek art.

In all of these descriptions, the suffering displayed by the casts in no way makes the viewer uncomfortable. Instead, the visceral expressions of pain only made the casts more artistic, more beautiful.

Classicist Mary Beard has argued that we should not think of the casts as actual bodies:

In fact, at the very moment that one version of the [cast of a] young woman is greeting visitors to the Getty Museum in Malibu, an identical version has pride of place in another Pompeii exhibition in Denver, Colorado – different casts and recasts of the same void made by the same dead human being 2,000 years ago (and 5,000 miles away).

Plaster is a medium that allows for easy reproduction. The artist Allan McCollum playfully riffed on this fact in his 1991 “The Dog from Pompei,” an installation consisting of dozens of fiberglass reproductions of the guard dog.

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Allan McCollum, The Dog from Pompei, 1991 (via allanmccollum.com)

The new restorations, however, blur the distinction between cast, or at least the original cast, and human body. A video released by excavation authorities this spring shows conservators reverentially carrying the casts into their workspace on coffin-like palanquins. The bones protruding from some casts, like the visible skull in the screencap below, make it clear that whatever the casts are, they’re something more akin to corpses than tourists might like to think.

Pompeii cast skull

Screencapture via YouTube

Even more jarring, and frankly revolting in some cases, are the computer-generated reconstructions of the lost fleshy bits of the skeletons created using CT scans of the casts.

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Computer manipulation of a plaster cast CT scan (via The Atlantic)

In these images, the greyish-white pieces of plaster that externally resemble statues are transformed into luridly colored, undeniably human, above all dead bodies. The skulls are cracked from the expansion of the brains as they cooked; the bones set at unnatural angles because of the ways the joints seized in the cadaveric spasms.

As much as their culture was infused with aestheticized death, it’s hard to imagine that the Victorians would describe the new computer-generated images as beautiful or compare them with masterpieces of Classical art. To be fair, they had no way to see inside the plaster, let alone the technology to reconstruct what the long-gone soft tissues might have looked like. The bones, however, have been inside the original casts all along, hidden but persistent reminders that the casts have never really been what they appeared from the outside. As they once again emerge into popular culture, treated now as research specimens rather than objets d’art, we have the luxury—and burden—of seeing more of the human beings the casts have replaced.


Featured image via Wikimedia Commons