Update from: Assc. Prof. Kathryn Welch, Historian and Facilitator, Pompeii Cast Project
Following the signing of our Memorandum of Agreement with the Parco Archeologico di Pompei in 2017, our team is pleased to announce that the University of Sydney awarded us a sum of money from the Industry and Community Engagement Fund to begin our systematic investigation of the casts. Our partners are Chifley College Senior Campus and Chester Hill High School and we would like to take this opportunity to thank both schools, their principals, leading Ancient History teachers, and students for their enthusiastic support.
Our aim was to X-ray a group of nine casts made from lime cement in 1991 that are currently off limits to the general public. The lime cement presents a particular challenge as the casts are extremely fragile. They are impossible to move, so CT-scanning is not an option. In order to capture any images of bones and teeth we knew we had to use digital X-ray, but lime cement is almost radio-opaque.
Because we were very uncertain that we would achieve ANY results with this group, we decided to include only our digital X-ray engineer, Mr Stijn Luyck, to Pompeii and not the whole team. Fortunately, he introduced us to his good friend and colleague, Dr Julia Ridder, an equine vet and who shares his passion for archaeology. She and her husband Jeremy joined us for the short time we were in Pompeii and we were very grateful for their assistance. Those of you who have been following Estelle’s story of discovery will know that she encountered Stijn and his expertise while assisting with a BBC documentary in 2012, and, as a consequence, they worked together on a second documentary in 2015. I can now personally attest that his skills are amazing.
Our quest to gain some results even through this difficult material was assisted by the person responsible for this group of casts. Professor Antonio De Simone generously provided us with as much information as possible about the original process, including the formula for the mixture he used to enable Stijn undertake do some experiments in advance. The results of his initial work were not encouraging. And we were not confident that we would find anything. Moreover, on arrival we also learned that the site had recently been vandalized, and at least one victim had suffered the indignity of having their bones disturbed. The remains of another, a small child, had been removed to the laboratory because it was exposed and had been suffering weather damage. Our colleagues at the Archaeological Park assured us that we would be able to study the remains during our next field season.
The first X-rays revealed that we could actually see some bones through the cement. Jubilation. However, it was also clear that getting good enough images to enable interpretation of the skeletal material was going to be difficult. We persevered for the morning, and, while pleased that our efforts were not wasted, are now even more aware of the challenges that this group presents. Lesson: don’t use lime cement as a casting material! Nevertheless, we will return in January in a better position to assess exactly what we can do to unlock the information that this set of bones offers.
Despite the difficulty, the group is unique in that Professor de Simone attempted a new style of display by casting the debris of the buildings and leaving each victim in the place where s/he died. This authenticity is immediately apparent in the positions of the victims and the presence in cast of brick tiles and beams. For once, the mountain created the tableau rather than any human intervention. It is a great pity that the fragility of the material and the difficulty of protecting the entire site means that the visiting public cannot see this evocative evidence of human suffering and we felt particularly privileged to be able to study it.
After lunch we moved to the series of four casts near the Porta Nocera. Amadeo Maiuri cast these victims in plaster in the second half of the 1950s. One is apparently still in situ. It must be said that while we discovered more bones, it was still a challenge to obtain good results because the victims are also close to the ground and even our wonderful portable equipment could not easily slide into the available cracks and crevices. The last victim we X-rayed clearly has his/her skeleton intact and we really look forward to examining the material – and gaining more! Just as we were rejoicing on some excellent outcomes, the diminishing light and rapidly-fading laptop battery convinced us to call it a day.
And we retired happy. It will take time to process the results and we look forward to a second opportunity for more research in January which will build on what we were able to do this time. It’s a case of “stay tuned”.
As always, we would like to thank the Parco Archeologico di Pompei for their collaboration and assistance and look forward to returning to Pompeii as soon as possible.
Archaeologists, historians, forensic scientists and uni students all contribute their expertise to the blog. Find out more about our team here.
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