Daily Life: Body casts

Skeletons of five mules

Frozen in time: Pompeii’s unique legacy

In 1860, the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli noticed that long-decomposed organic material had left voids in the volcanic ash which covered Pompeii, and devised a way to fill them with plaster. This technique produced startlingly realistic casts of human beings and animals frozen in their death agonies, which continue to disturb and intrigue us today. Some of the most poignant examples are an embracing couple and a writhing dog, chained and unable to escape — true snapshots of mortality, miraculously preserved intact for nearly 2,000 years.

In 1984, archaeologists developed a new technique which used epoxy resin instead of plaster. The transparent resin allows scientists to see the skeleton and teeth of the figure, and in the case of a woman at Oplontis, even the jewellery she was wearing is visible. These figures are both moving and powerful, unwilling messengers from the distant past who in their deaths have provided us with a unique window on their ancient lives.

Related object
Crouching man body cast
Details
Related object
Guard dog
Details
Photograph of a yellow plastic Tyranasaurus Rex