Thursday, 24 March 2016

Herculaneum and Pompeii: pyroclastic surges

An image of Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background.
On the 24th August AD 79, two towns in the bay of Naples were buried and forgotten. Herculaneum and Pompeii both reside in Italy on the bay of Naples, near the volcano Vesuvius. These two towns were preserved to the extent that we can still see and examine loafs of charred bread, people, animals and their possessions. In 2011, I visited both towns and had a glimpse into the past, seeing whole buildings which had survived underneath the ground. The towns have provided a wealth of information on life in Roman towns. This week I am writing about the pyroclastic surges that destroyed both towns.

When Vesuvius, the volcano in Naples, erupted in AD79. Pliny the younger was able to document the devastating events that unfolded. From the earthquakes to the hot ash that fell from the ground to the blackened out sky, all the details were recorded. However, one detail that was disputed for many years was the description of the four pyroclastic surges that hit the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii. It was in 2010 that a study was conducted and proved that the residents were killed by extreme temperatures instead of the hot ash (Valsecchi, 2010). It was until the modern world observed a pyroclastic surge with its own eyes, that Pliny’s account of the events in AD 79 were revised. The Unzen Volcano in Japan had the same pyroclastic surges as that of Vesuvius.

Pliny the younger’s description of the column of pumice and ash above Vesuvius:
About one in the afternoon… a cloud was ascending, the appearance which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud itself being pressed back again by its own weight, expanded in the manner I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders” (The British Museum, 2013).

A cast of a person from Pompeii with surviving amphora. 
Once the weight of the column couldn’t be supported anymore the column collapsed on itself, causing the pyroclastic surges. There were six pyroclastic surges and it was the first surge that killed the residents of Herculaneum. The temperature, rising to 300°C of the cloud killed everything it touched, allowing for the town and majority of things in it to be preserved (Valsecchi, 2010). The fourth surge that came from the volcano was the one that hit Pompeii. The speed of these surges meant that people were preserved in their last moments, huddled covering their faces. When visiting Pompeii, you can see the casts created of the people of Pompeii. The casts are beyond shocking, when you look at them you begin to imagine the fear these people experienced during their last moments. This makes them appear as genuine people instead of just figures of the past. Despite this, the information received from the two towns allowed for historians and archaeologists to begin to understand life in the past. Both towns have a wide variety of information to offer the inquisitive minds of the 21st century.  

To see a pyroclastic surge in action, watch the YouTube video of the surges from the volcano Unzen to see their speed and begin to understand the sheer devastation that they can cause.

1.     BBC (2011) History - Pompeii: Portents of disaster. Available at: (Accessed: 22 March 2016).
2.     Eruption timeline (2013) Available at: (Accessed: 22 March 2016).
3.     Geography Video 4 the UC (2010) Dome collapse and pyroclastic flow at Unzen volcano. Available at: (Accessed: 22 March 2016).
4.     Madej, H. and Cristina, M. (2010) Pompeiians flash-heated to Death ‘no time to suffocate’. Available at: (Accessed: 22 March 2016).
Pictures from:
1.     Madej, H. and Cristina, M. (2010) Pompeiians flash-heated to Death ‘no time to suffocate’. Available at: (Accessed: 22 March 2016).
2.     Hay, S. (2013) Available at: (Accessed: 22 March 2016).


Friday, 11 March 2016

Archaeological Artefacts: helping to provide the facts of Celtic history.

Throughout history, there are many representations of gods, animals and important individuals. For me, many interesting aspects of history are left out of the curriculum in school, as well as further education. During my second year at University the module ‘Barbarians in the West’, briefly discussed the Celts, drawing attention to the stones depicting ogam text. This made me want to learn more about who the Celts were and what other archaeology had survived from their time. Literature, for me, is a useful tool when thinking about the important figures of history, especially during the Roman period. Looking through the historical and theatrical works of figures such as Thucydides, Aeschylus, Tacitus, Livy, Sophocles, Herodotus and Aristophanes it is useful for seeing the ancient world through the eyes of the contemporaries. Throughout literature, the majority of people outside the Roman Empire, mostly in Northern Europe, were described as uncivilised and referred to as ‘Barbarians.’ Ammianus Marcellinus describes the Barbarians as “savages with arrows” making them appear uncivilised and unsophisticated (Marcellinus, 1939, 5). This creates a one-sided view that the ‘Barbarians’ were not as developed as the Romans, seeing as they still used weapons such as arrows, instead of swords. In Aeschylus’ Persians, the Persian loss at the Battle of Marathon in 490BC is dramatised to emphasise Greek supremacy over Persia. However, Athens was invaded by the Persians in 479BC burning it to the ground. Hence, when Aeschylus wrote Persians in 472 BC the dramatised win of the Greeks presents a one-sided view of Greek supremacy when in reality both nations experienced defeat at the hands of the other. Thus, the literature provides only one-side of the story, the perspective of the author. Therefore, through the archaeological evidence historians can begin to understand the Celtic people from a less biased point of view, making us see the people as they were.
                                                                              Ogam stone collection                                                                                               (
The Ancient Greeks acknowledged the presence of the Celts, however, it is not clear as to whether the Celts referred to themselves by this name or not. At the British Museum in January 2016, I was able to view some of the surviving pieces of Celtic Art that the museum had collected and exhibited to the public in their ‘Celts art and identity exhibition’. Celtic art provided a variety of objects crossing different time periods from the Iron Age, through to the Roman Empire, all the way through to the early medieval period, covering 1,500 years (British Museum, 2015, 38).  Walking through the exhibition, the variation of decorative items on display were astonishing. From brooches to belt clasps, bowls to shields, the large quantity of relics present allow for a historical insight into the world of the Celts. It is clear that there was contact ‘beyond the frontier’ of the Roman Empire with trade routes being marked out through archaeological discoveries of Roman artefacts outside of the Empire. Roman influences are present in the Celtic accessories, shown through the numerous of rings and bracelets on display, some of which coil around your wrist and fingers, incorporating local designs and technologies. (British Museum, 2015, 150) This reinforces the view that trade, of objects and ideas, occurred with people outside of the Roman Empire.

Celtic art differs greatly from typical art seen in the Roman world. Celtic objects used for feasts, religion, adornment and warfare were decorated with different patterns as well as many different animals. One example of an object which stood out for me was the ‘Prancing Horses’ bucket found in Aylesford, dating around 75 to 25 BC. The faces of the two horses look very unrealistic and are suggested to have been humans dressed up as horses. Similar to this was a bronze shield, dating to around 300 to 200BC, which is decorated with the head of two bird. These bird heads are designed amongst a Celtic motif, and the purpose behind this Celtic decoration remains a mystery to this day.

A variety of Celtic language has survived through inscriptions, such as the Pictish symbols carved on stones. In the exhibition, there were three tall stone crosses and two smaller rectangular stones bearing the engraved Pictish symbols. I found these pieces to be mesmerising as I stood shocked, thinking how on earth these have survived and not eroded away due to the harsh weather in and surrounding Britain.  The Picts in Scotland were said to have existed in Scotland during the Iron Age society from “ca AD 300-843 when the Dalriadic Scot, Kenneth, son of Alpin, took the Pictish Kingship” (Lee, R, Jonathan, P & Ziman, P, 2010, 2546).  The Pictish symbols include images of animals and geometric shapes of which carry an air of uncertainty as it is not known what they represent (Lee, R, Jonathan, P & Ziman, P, 2010, 2547). Another Celtic language that has survived is ogam. Ogam is an Old Irish text with notches carved into the object along the edge of an object, such as stone. It is suggested that this text reinforces the notion of Scotland invading Ireland, which resulted in some Scottish settlers in Ireland. (British Museum, 2015, 157) This is reinforced through some ogam inscriptions being found in Scotland. I found the exhibition truly fascinating, from being able to view the archaeological evidence I gained a lot of insight into the world of the Celts as a result. Furthermore, I can clearly see why the Victorians were highly fascinated with the Celts and why, even now, people wish to be tattooed with the Celtic designs of the past.

1.     Art (2015) Available at: (Accessed: 10 March 2016).
2.     Farley, J. and Hunter, F. (eds.) (2015) Celts art and identity. 1st edn. London: The British Museum.
3.     Lee, R., Jonathan, P. and Ziman, P. (2010) ‘Pictish symbols revealed as a written language through application of Shannon entropy’, Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 466(2121), pp. 2545–2560. doi: 10.1098/rspa.2010.0041.
4.     Thayer, B. (no date) Lacus Curtius • Ammianus Marcellinus — book XXVII. Available at:*.html (Accessed: 10 March 2016).

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