My Favourite Specimen in Nature Unleashed
Working in the Education department at the museum has been an amazing experience, but one that has come with challenges. I, in fact, do not have a background in biology or environmental education, but rather, obtained my B.A. in European History and Museum Studies. Therefore, it was to my surprise and delight when I toured Nature Unleashed for the first time and saw artefacts from a very significant historical event that I studied: the eruption of Mount Vesuvius!
The two artefacts shown below are objects that belonged to people of Pompeii, Italy, and that were cemented in volcanic materials after the famous eruption in A.D. 79. The first is a conglomerate of various objects including beads, bronze coins and rings, a chisel and pieces of wood. The other is a fragment of a gardening tool.
As a big history buff, I love seeing objects used by the people of long ago. But the most interesting thing about these artefacts is that visitors are not only able to see but also to understand the eruptions’ enormous impact on the people of long ago. Luckily, this historical event was documented by the philosopher and poet Pliny the Younger.
On the morning of August 24, A.D. 79, noisy explosions came from Italy’s Mount Vesuvius and fine ash particles rained down. By 1:00 p.m., the entire city was plunged into darkness. Soon, a gas column rose 33 km high, while pumice (rock made from solidified ash) fell down upon the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum at an accumulation rate of 12–15 cm/hour.
These towns were entirely destroyed by pyroclastic flows, which are fast-moving and super-hot gas and rock that moves away from a volcano. Sadly, an estimated 16 000 people died from this eruption, making it one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in European history.
Volcanic eruptions certainly come with lots of warning signs before the main explosion, and indeed Mount Vesuvius’s was no exception. But as Pliny the Younger stated in his account, the people had grown accustomed to minor Earth tremors in the region, and “they were not particularly alarming because they [were] frequent in Campania.”1
So, as the pumice rained down and the gas enveloped the towns, most of the people were still in town. It was only after the eruption began that they began to flee; however, it was simply too late. The air was too thick with ash and the sea too turbulent to escape. Historians believe that many may have died of ash inhalation, and others literally cooked in the streets and in their homes as surrounding temperatures reached a deadly 250°C.
After thick layers of ash covered the two towns, they were abandoned and eventually their names and locations were forgotten. Once Pompeii and Herculaneum were discovered later in the 18th century, they were properly excavated and studied.
Many bodies were even found in situ: the people had been completely unprepared for such destructive forces. In fact, even these iron tools could have been in use prior to its users’ fleeing for their lives after the eruption.
Today, the volcano is closely monitored by extensive networks and seismic and gravimetric stations in the hope that all those living in the “red zone” could be evacuated with enough warning. Despite the danger, more than 2 million people are currently living within the vicinity of Mount Vesuvius. Luckily, there hasn’t been a major eruption in almost 70 years.
So if you visit Nature Unleashed, be sure to stop by that exhibit, whether you want to bask in the presence of a pretty “hot” piece of history, or simply be awe-struck by Mother Nature’s powerful forces!
1 Visiting Pompeii. [Online]. Rick Jones, Current Archeology. September 28, 2007. (Web site consulted October 31, 2012). http://www.archaeology.co.uk/cwa-2/world-features/visiting-pompeii.htm