Bodies of Pompeii

September 15, 2009 / Art & Archaeology
Pompeii, Campania
PetrifiedPompeii1Like the lost city of Atlantis, the unfortunate city of Pompeii has achieved legendary status due to its unique downfall. It was destroyed and buried during an devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius over two long days in 79 AD.

Among the most iconic images from the aftermath of the eruption are the cast bodies of its citizens, frozen forever in time. While many will speak of these remains as fossilized, they are actually plaster casts created by archaeologists.

The original ash-covered bodies decomposed naturally, leaving behind hollow shells of pumice and ash. Archaeologists then mixed plaster with water and poured this into the empty spaces. After drying, the layer of hardened ash was chipped away to reveal the shape of the human victim.

The results are both haunting and tragic. Expressions of desperation and agony appear through the body language of the victims who fought for survival to the last minute. While most of the bodies appear twisted and mangled, there is one couple frozen in a loving and eternal embrace. They serve as a lasting reminder of a city that disappeared before its time.


Ian Zurzolo

by Ian Zurzolo

Writer, editor, American University of Rome graduate, Italian Notebook Editorial Intern.

11 Responses to “Bodies of Pompeii”

  1. jojo

    although I heard of the ‘loving couple’ I have never seen them. The act of a tender caring embrace at a time of cataclysmic tragedy, emulates the true human spirit. Loving is what we are, love will prevail.

  2. pompeii certainly is one of the most amazing experiences ever. You’re so right about haunting and tragic. Perfect words. Very nice post, Ian.

  3. Richard Smith

    Thanks for the interesting story on Pompeii. In a macabre way they bring a tragic reality to what otherwise are ruins that can be treated with the nonchalance tourists display at a Hollywood stage set. My favorite was the dog at the bakery with the small flat loaf of bread still clenched in it’s teeth – one last shot at survival.
    Thanks again
    Dick Smith

  4. Linda DiCrescenzo

    The dog inspired a short story entitled “The Dog of Pompeii’ a very special story I shared with my former sixth grade students when we studied Ancient Rome. I became intrigued with Pompeii myself at the tender age of 12 and made it my mission to visit Pompeii as an adult. Have been there 3-4 times and still have not seen it all.
    On 9/11 when I saw pictures of the people running from the WTC, all I could think was “This is how it must have been for the people of Pompeii as they ran to the sea trying to escape the rain of ashes and gases from Vesuvius.” It was an eerie sight.

  5. Stanley Crabb

    Oh, oh Pompei!
    Just to be there is an unforgetable experience. In 1962 I had to meet an American friend in Rome. I drove him to see the famous Pompei. We were living in Matera at the time. I decided to take my son Philip with me on the trip. He was 5 or so and very impressionable.
    I had read a very interesting article about Pompei in the National Geographic magazine. The article described in detail new excavations being done and about finding several bodies as they excavated one more area. As we were walking through the ruins, I discovered what I thought might be the place. There was a boarded-up gate and a “Do Not Enter” sign. I peeped through the cracks and became convinced that this was indeed the area. We were able with problems to open the door and inside was a large field. At one end of the field was a roofed area and the “white” bodies of the Pompeians laid out in a line under that roof. I recognized it as the picture in National Geographic. We began to search the field near the bodies for the hole in the ground nearby leading to the place underground where the archeologists had discovered the bones. Conveniently, the ladder the archeologists had used was still there, descending from the top and just barely reaching the ground level. I began to climb down the ladder. My son, Philip, was at a very impressionable age. As I began to enter the hole, he started yelling “NO, Daddy, NO! Don’t go down there.” I tried to calm him and assured him I would not do anything dangerous. But, he kept anxiously yelling at me not to do it. I did manage to get down far enough to see the large area that had been obviously been excavated, but it was all very dark, so I climbed back out.
    I had no idea of the effect that would have on Philip. After returning home, and for weeks thereafter after, the poor boy would wake up in the night crying, and repeating…”No, Daddy. Don’t go down. No.” I learned a lesson that lasted a long time.
    I still absolutely love to walk through Pompei. I took a group there in 2007. There are some “forbidden” paintings and sculptures in places around the city, but one would never find them without the help (and a tip) of one of the guides. Evidently, the Pompeians enjoyed life before the disaster. When I took my father in law back in 1964, he became enamored with the Pizza Parlors and ovens along the streets of Pompei. It is indeed a fascinating place.

  6. C. Wright

    A friend and I were able to visit there this summer. It was every bit as wonderful and amazing as I’d read it was. It was a beautiful day, a little windy and not hot at all….odd for the middle of July! I plan to go back there next year if I can, because like Linda wrote, there’s no way you can see it all even in 3-4 trips!

    When you visit, definitely spend the few euros for the audio guide, very worth the money to do so!

  7. Ian Zurzolo
    Ian Zurzolo

    Thank you for the comments. Pompeii is a place that everyone should visit at some point in their life. You don’t need to be a history buff to appreciate the beauty of this lost civilization.


    Do you have a link to that short story, “The Dog of Pompeii”? I would be interested in reading it.

    Thanks again,

  8. My husband and I took a trip to Sorrento and did a day trip to Pompeii.
    I feel cheated and feel like a dummy. We did not buy an audio guide nor a personal guide, who are begging to be hired.We walked and walked and saw very few things. We did not see the dog, nor the “fossilized”people.
    I don’t know how we missed so much.
    It was extremely hot that day so we gave up.
    Had lunch and wine, shopped a little and headed back to Sorrento.
    I am very disappointed in ourselves for not researching things better.
    Just wanted to include this, so no one else misses out…..
    Thank you for your all the informative info.

  9. Gian Banchero

    Years and years ago, in my youth, on a cold rainy day with guide-book in hand, I was walking the ruins of Pompeii, suddenly the delicious aroma of fresh baked bread was everywhere, it wasn’t until I looked at the guide book that did I realize that I was standing next to the bakery. Has anyone else had this experience? —Also, as with Ms Di Crescenza, the site of crowds running during the collapse of the WTC made me think of the poor people of Pompeii.
    I have a jar of granulated ash I retrieved from Pompeii, every time I want to “witness” history I look at the ash, always fascinated that the quarter inch stones were created two thousand years ago, during an interesting period in Italy’s ancient history and at the moment of the death of Pliny the Elder; they look as fresh as though created this morning.

  10. Linda DiCrescenzo

    I don’t have a link for the story, “The Dog of Pompeii” but the author is Louis Untermeyer. I’m sure it can be found easily, either at the local library or online somewhere. It is often included in literature anthologies for young readers. (pre-teens, about 12 years old) I hope you have success in finding it and would love to know your reactions.


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