How and Why
the Plaster Casts Were Created
In AD 79 an eruption of Mount Vesuvius effectively wiped out the Roman town of Pompeii. Volcanic ash and pumice rained down on the town for about 18 hours (to depths of 8-10 feet); many roofs collapsed under the weight. This was followed by a nuée ardente, explosive superheated pyroclastic clouds of toxic gas and debris that came in six surges. Pompeii was completely covered and remained hidden for over 1600 years.
In 1748, Pompeii was rediscovered--not only its houses, but (eventually) some of its citizens. Although only fragmentary skeletal remains were found there, hollow spaces within the hardened volcanic debris revealed the forms of many deceased Romans. Suffocated by volcanic gasses and covered in ash and debris, their bodies eventually decayed inside the hardening matter. This air space essentially formed a mold, since the ash that had surrounded the person retained an imprint of the body. Excavators realized this and filled the air pockets with plaster. The resulting "plaster mummies" poignantly capture the human tragedy of Pompeii.
A visit to Pompeii (and nearby Herculaneum, where only skeletons were found) should be high on any world traveller's list of must-see sites...and not just to see plaster mummies. The structure of the city, the architecture of the buildings, the beauty of the artwork--all make for an unforgettable visit. Even to walk on the stones of the street is mind-boggling.
During my many visits to Pompeii as I worked on my book, Bodies from the Ash, I found plaster mummies among the ruins in many places (but please note that displays are often moved without notice). Others are exhibited in houses that may be unexpectedly closed (for repair or lack of guards) or in buildings that are only occasionally open to the public, including the House of the Cryptoporticus. Visitors who arrive at Pompeii early on weekend days can request tickets to the special houses that are open, only on weekend mornings. Lack of funding and adequate security make such limited opening hours a necessity.
Here is a partial list of the places you should be able to find the plaster casts of Pompeii:
Garden of the Fugitives (13 plaster casts)
Stabian Baths (2)
Horrea and Forum Olitorium (as many as 6 can be seen in this storage facility)
Porta Nocera (4)
Caupona Pherusa (1)
Pompeii Antiquarium (Plaster casts used to be displayed in this building, but it was damaged in WWII; it is being repaired and should be reopening (with an undisclosed number of plaster casts on display)