Who made the plaster casts at Pompeii?

You’ve probably seen pictures or have heard of the plaster cast forms of the fallen victims from Mout Vesuvius’s eruption in 79 AD. But do you know who made these casts? And just how they did it?

“You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling for their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognise them by their voices. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.” 

These are the words written by Pliny the Younger, a lawyer, author and magistrate of ancient Rome who offers the only eye-witness account of the Vesuvius’s eruption. Whilst staying with his uncle, Pliny sees the aftermath of the volcano’s eruption, watching its dark black smoke from his uncle’s window. He confides all of this in two letters he writes to a friend which were discovered in the 16th century. This ancient voice reaches out to us as the only eye-witness account of the eruption, and even then, we do not know how accurate the information is. It does transport us though, back in time to the crumbling ruins of Pompeii which began to fall in the morning of August 24th (the exact date is up for debate), resulting in the death of over 2,000 people.

The History of Pompeii

At noon Mount Vesuvius roared. With tremors warning the people of Pompeii prior to the eruption, this roar was the only thing to get people’s attention, but it was too late. The mountain spewed ash hundreds of feet into the air for 18 hours straight. The ash rained down on the city, choking its citizens and blinding them in their desperate last-minute attempts to escape. The next morning, the cone of the volcano collapsed, triggering a hundred mile an hour avalanche of mud and ash that flooded Pompeii, destroying everything in its path. Pompeii and its small neighbouring village of Herculaneum disappeared. And so the once rich and prosperous city was no more. Influenced by the Greeks and a popular holiday destination for the Romans, Pompeii was unique in its lustrous lands, bustling market life and trading success. Its paved streets would be lined with shops, brothels, fast-food venues and bakeries. And all this was destroyed in 24 hours. This is not the only volcano that has erupted, but it is the only one to have opened a window to the past. The city’s rediscovery began in the 18th century, with hundreds of archaeologists from all over the world flocking to Pompeii to study the ancient world. They unearthed artefacts, buildings, as well as human remains.

Pompeii’s Excavation 

Pompeii and its neighbouring village of Herculaneum were only discovered by accident during the construction of King Charles III’s Bourbon’s Palace in 1738. Miraculously, the two cities were nearly perfectly preserved, lingering on in the same way Mount Vesuvius had left them. The layers of calcified ash, which had taken the lives of Pompeii’s citizens, had also preserved them. About 3/4 of Pompeii’s 165 acres has been excavated, and some 1,150 bodies have been discovered out of an estimated 2,000 thought to have died in the disaster. This means that the vast majority of the city of 20,000 fled at the first signs of the volcanic activity, making for the sea. Those who didn’t make it out in time are still gazed upon today thanks to the plaster casts that have taken the shape of their bodily forms.

How are the Body Casts Formed?

During the volcanoes eruption, people were hit by rocks and fallen debris, chocking on gas and fumes, sometimes dying instantly from the heat. With the sudden ferocity of the eruption which destroyed buildings and monuments, people died almost instantly, as seen by the bodily forms left behind. Buried 6 metres deep in ash which calcified over the centuries, the bodies of Mount Vesuvius’s victims were preserved in a protective shell of ash. When the skin and tissues of these bodies eventually decayed, they left voids in the layer of ash around them in the exact shape of their final moments. It wasn’t until the 18th century excavations that Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli came up with an idea for reconstructing the bodies. After discovering the air pockets that indicated the presence of human remains in a street dubbed “the Alley of Skeletons”, Fiorelli and his team decided to pour plaster into the voids. They let the plaster harden, then chipped away the outer layers of ash, leaving behind a cast of the victims at their time of death. These plaster outlines preserved the voids left by the bodies giving a glimpse into the tragic destructions that took so many people at once. Their preserved expression of horror and pain remind us of their humanity, with their vulnerable bodies, sometimes distorted, giving an eery feel to the ancient city.

Why did the project end?

Although we owe many thanks to Fiorelli for his careful excavation efforts that pathed the way for careful and considerate preservation of the Lost City, the process of his plaster casts was eventually terminated. Though excavation projects are ongoing, new casts are not being made because the paster damages the fragile remains of the corpses.  In recent years there has been a big push to conserve the city and its pained inhabitants as they are now exposed to the elements and are at risk of decomposing or being damaged further. With these pieces and finds being invaluable to the research of ancient Rome, archaeologists want to ensure that they can keep digging, exploring and analysing the remains for years to come. Whilst there may be no new faces to see, a visit to Pompeii is still worth your while, with the figures of adults, children and animals all on display.

Where to see the body casts?

The best place to see these fantastic casts is in Naples. It is the closest large city to the volcano, Mount Vesuvius and the ancient city of Pompeii. The cast was moved here to further preserve them, held at the National Archaeological Museum, listed as the best museum in the country! No trip to Pompeii is complete without a viewing of these casts. On your visit to the site make sure you check out the Garden of the Fugitives. This holds the largest number of victims found in one place, where 13 people sought refuge in a fruit orchard. Although it can be a distressing experience, Pompeii is one of the greatest wonders of history, so don’t refuse yourself the opportunity to see them for yourself.