How Technology is Saving Pompeii
On November 27th, The ROM closed out this year’s #FNLROM season with a farewell to their Pompeii Exhibit “In the Shadow of the Volcano.” The well-attended event featured curated tours of the exhibit, interactive displays that allowed attendees to explore what life in Pompeii was like for the Romans, and an opportunity to learn how to properly tie a toga. With live music and food and beverages offered on three floors of the historic museum, attendees had a wonderful opportunity to experience the museum and the exhibit in a unique way.
#FNLROM has become one of our favourite Toronto Events after first attending on Hallowe’en. The museum pulsates with life and revelry, and occasionally one finds a quiet pocket in the exhibits that can allow us to live our fantasies of being the only ones in the museum. As fans of history and archaeology (we did our own guided tour, sharing our knowledge with each other), we were of course ecstatic to be given the opportunity by The Royal Ontario Museum to check out the latest event.
Two thousand years ago Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy erupted, spewing hot ash and debris into the air. There was little warning to the surrounding areas of this explosive eruption that would decimate the region. Without Volcanology and the scientific knowledge we possess today, the residents of Pompeii had no idea that the earthquakes and rumblings leading up to that fateful day were a precursor to their demise. Within 24 hours of the eruption, Pompeii was buried and it remained that way until 1600 years later when it would be discovered.
Pompeii has captured our fascination and imaginations. Unlike most ruined cities and archaeological discoveries, Pompeii gives a detailed look at the last moments of this fated people. The casts of the victims’ death throes are iconic, drawing our morbid curiosity towards them like a magnet.
We toured through the impressive exhibit of pristinely restored busts and statues, tools of trade, pottery and household items, jewelry, and stunning frescos protected by glass casings. But as we moved forward, it was evident that people were breathlessly anticipating one thing in particular – the famous casts.
In 1863 when Fiorelli found the victim’s of Pompeii’s volcanic catastrophe, he discovered a unique opportunity to preserve a moment caught in time. The fine ash from the eruption had adhered to the victims’ skin and clothing, hardening to form a shell around the corpse. As the human remains decayed they left a cavity, a highly detailed mold if you will. Fiorelli opted to fill these cavities with plaster to preserve them and allow for further study. Creating the casts is an exact science: The plaster must be thin enough to show the details of the person, but thick enough to support the remains.
The casts on display at The ROM’s exhibit are not the original plaster casts which contain the human remains of Pompeii’s residents. Eight of the casts on display were plaster models, but five were modern resin copies made using the latest 3D laser-scanning technology.
The majority of Pompeii’s casts were made in the mid-19th century. They require repairs and great care to preserve them . As part of “The Great Pompeii Project,” 3D replicas of the original casts were created. This is the first time they have been on display outside of Italy.
3D laser scanning technology is being explored as a fantastic tool for archaeologists to preserve history. It is a non-contact, non-destructive technology that digitally captures the shape of physical objects using a line of laser light. “Point Clouds” of data are created from the surface of the object. The technology allows for measuring fine details and capturing free-form shapes to quickly generate highly accurate point clouds. The exact size and shape of the physical object are captured creating a 3-dimensional representation. The technology is ideally suited to the measurement and inspection of contoured surfaces and complex geometries that require massive amounts of data for accurate description.
Using resin casts, although expensive, is another vital tool in ensuring that these victims’ final moments are preserved. Resin is more durable than plaster.
The exhibit is haunting. The room where the casts are displayed was eerily quiet despite the crowds of people slowly walking through. It is an odd feeling to be looking at the shadow of someone’s last moment, wondering what they were thinking and feeling, staring at their macabre tomb.
For those of you who have not seen the exhibit yet, we highly recommend high-tailing it to The ROM before it closes January 3rd. Get more information on the exhibit HERE.
[All photos courtesy of Anna Crooke Photography]