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INSIDE THE CASTS OF THE POMPEIAN VICTIMS: RESULTS FROM THE FIRST SEASON OF THE POMPEII CAST PROJECT IN 2015

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 December 2020

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Abstract

The first casts of the forms of Pompeian victims of the AD 79 eruption of Mt Vesuvius were successfully achieved under the directorship of Giuseppe Fiorelli in 1863. To date, 104 individuals have been cast by restorers and archaeologists during the course of excavation. The methods used to obtain these casts were not well documented. It was always assumed that plaster or lime cement was merely poured into voids which preserved the impression of organic remains buried in the ash that covered the site during the catastrophe. It was also assumed that the undisturbed skeletal remains of victims were encased within the casts. The initial aim of the Pompeii Cast Project was to study these bones to build on and test the results of an earlier study of the large sample of Pompeian human remains that were disarticulated by post-excavation activities. Apart from providing information about the people who did not manage to escape the eruption, the project aimed to challenge previous interpretations of the lives and activities of these victims that were solely based on superficial inspection and circumstantial evidence.

Twenty-six casts were subjected to CT scanning or X-ray analysis in 2015. The results were unexpected. It was clear that the casts had been considerably manipulated. Bones were often removed prior to casting, and other elements had been introduced. This ongoing project has now been expanded to establish how these casts were achieved, to better understand nineteenth- and twentieth-century archaeological and restoration practice.

I primi calchi delle vittime pompeiane dell'eruzione del Vesuvio del 79 d.C. furono realizzati con successo sotto la direzione di Giuseppe Fiorelli nel 1863. Ad oggi, 104 individui sono stati fatti oggetto di calco negli scavi da restauratori e archeologi. I metodi utilizzati per ottenere questi “calchi” non sono stati sempre ben documentati. Si è sempre pensato che gesso o malta cementizia fossero semplicemente versati nei vuoti che avevano conservato l'impronta di resti organici, sepolti nella cenere che aveva ricoperto il sito durante la catastrofe. Si è anche dato per scontato che i resti scheletrici delle vittime fossero racchiusi all'interno dei calchi. Lo scopo iniziale del Pompeii Cast Project era quello di studiare queste ossa per incrementare e testare i risultati di uno studio precedente condotto su una grande quantità di resti umani pompeiani, disarticolati dalle attività successive allo scavo. Oltre a fornire informazioni sulle persone che non riuscirono a sfuggire all'eruzione, il progetto mirava a mettere in discussione le precedenti interpretazioni delle vite e delle attività di queste vittime che si erano basate esclusivamente su analisi superficiali e prove circostanziali.

Nel 2015 ventisei modelli sono stati sottoposti a scansione TC o ad analisi a raggi X. I risultati sono stati inaspettati. È ora chiaro che i calchi sono stati notevolmente manipolati. Le ossa sono state spesso rimosse prima della gettata e altri elementi sono stati introdotti nelle cavità. Questo progetto, ancora in corso, è stato ora ampliato per stabilire le modalità con cui i calchi sono stati ottenuti e per comprendere meglio le pratiche archeologiche e di restauro in uso nei secoli XIX e XX.

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Copyright © British School at Rome 2020

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Footnotes

1

The authors of this paper would like to thank the Pompeii Archaeological Park for granting access to the casts and assisting with this research; and, in addition, several colleagues and friends, including Greta Stefani, Sara Masseroli, Annalisa Capurso, Alberta Martellone, Bruno De Nigris, Valeria Amoretti (Pompeii Archaeological Park), Roger Pitcher, Kit Morrell, Peter Wilson and Margaret Harris (the University of Sydney). Stefano Vanacore, Girolamo Ferdinando De Simone, Sarah Court, Elena Mortelliti and Mary Beard have helped us greatly, and we thank them most warmly. Philips HC SPA Italia provided essential equipment. Our research has received generous financial support from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (University of Sydney) and from Lion TV. The number assigned to each cast follows the catalogue numbers assigned by Professor Massimo Osanna.

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