Cities of Vesuvius - Pompeii and Herculaneum

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Ethical issues: study and display of human remains

Questions to discuss (see p.198).

Matters to consider in the study and display of human remains:
  • Age of the remains
  • Direct or "cultural" descendents
  • Treatment of human remains
  • Storage of human remains
  • Display of human remains (ethnic identification, religious sensitivities, interests of children, warning notices, skeletal remains/plaster casts)

Plaster casts on display in Pompeii:
Body in the Macellum

Body in the Forum Olitorium

Body in the Garden of the Fugitives

These bodies allow the public to understand the contribution of Fiorelli, are not offensive and "provide a fascinating display". But they do contain bones (see the teeth in the photo on the left), and show clearly in their expressions the horrors that these people suffered. Is it ethical to display these?

Notes from a lecture by Estelle Lazer

Human Skeletal Remains From Pompeii and Herculaneum

  • Herculaneum discovery of beach bodies and boat bodies (1982) changed the view that everyone had escaped.
  • Pompeii - first human remains were found within two months of the first excavation in 1748. In early days, skeletons were put on display for visiting dignitaries - Vignettes. This expanded to take in mass tourism. In 1980 Estelle studied skeletons found in House of Menander. There were 10. Found that the skeletons had been put together from bits - totally faked. A person had two left arms, a knee was actually an ankle, a skull was made from fragments of three skulls and had adult and children’s teeth. They had been found by Maiuri who made meticulous records but the bones were improved for the visiting public.
  • “Faithful unto Death” painting by Sir Edward John Poynter 1865 - no record of this skeleton having been found.
Faithful Unto Death - Poynter

This work illustrated the epitome of devotion to duty for Victorian morals. The Roman sentry stands at his post whilst Pompeii and its citizens are destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. Scattered on the ground can be seen coins and other valuables, whilst in the background people try to save themselves and their possessions from the debris. Despite this and his obvious trepidation, the soldier still stands firm.
Poynter's source was the excavation at Pompeii of the remains of a soldier in full armour. This was used as the basis for an imaginary incident in Bulwer-Lytton's popular historical novel 'The Last days of Pompeii'.
(from Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)
  • 1897 edition of Last Days of Pompeii - an image of temple of Isis - “with desperate strength he attempted to hew his way through”
  • Edward Bulmer-Lytton “Last Days of Pompeii" (1834) created many myths - filmed in 1913, 1935, 1960 - recreated lives - eg used a skull as the basis for evil priest “the phrenology said it was a brilliant but evil person” (Lazer) - he souvenired the skull and used it as a paperweight.
  • 1863 - Fiorelli and plaster. Allowed a development of this approach to creating lives and relationships.
  • Paul Wilkinson: Pompeii The Last Day, continues this even up to today (recent book based on the bodies from House of Julius Polybius) - filmed by BBC in 2003.
  • The material has not been well looked after.
  • About 300 bodies have been found at Herculaneum.
Human remains at Herculaneum

  • Sarah Bisel’s work on Herculaneum is problematic. She was commissioned by National geographic, who naturally wanted something sensational and a good yarn. When she did her work she made stories up for the skeletons - e.g., she said that a girl holding a baby was a slave girl cradling a baby of a wealthy woman. Can’t assume from hygiene or body condition the class of a person.
  • Also skeleton woman in her 40s with bracelet and rings. The rings weren’t found there. They were put on the body for the photo. (see photo below - in the photo in your book on p.200 the rings are arranged differently)
  • (”Facial reconstruction is as scientific as tarot reading.")
  • Wrote “Secrets of Vesuvius” in 1981 which was really a “Last Days of Herculaneum”.
Sarah Bisel's "Ring Lady"

  • Pompeii hasn’t provided a full snapshot of life as it was but tantalising glimpses.
  • Age can be estimated by teeth in children up to 8-9 years, when permanent teeth come through (about 18 months margin of error). Or fusion and ossification of cartilage in growing bones, but this only applies to young adults up to 20-30. Anyone over this age, there is no reliable test for estimating age from bones.
  • Establishing sex is best in adults rather than children especially in pelvis and pubic area where the genitals are attached. Ventral arc at front of pelvis shows a female. Very difficult to establish sex of children’s remains.