Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Last Chance for Pompeii Exhibition!

9.10 on a Sunday morning!
You've been meaning to go to the British Museum Pompeii Exhibition all summer but it finishes at the end of September. At time of posting this, pre-booked tickets are almost sold out – just a few left for September weekends – so you might have to show up early to get one of 500 tickets released first thing each morning (not necessarily for immediate entry) OR find a friend who is a Member (i.e. a Friend) with guest privileges to take you OR become a Member yourself. If you become a Member, you can go whenever you like, breeze past the queue and go straight in. Then you can check your emails over coffee or tea in the brand new Members' Room.

The exhibition has had rave reviews but one problem is that it is almost always too crowded to enjoy. My best tip is to get yourself a Membership, show up on Saturday or Sunday just before opening at 9am, join the orderly queue outside the gates, go straight in to the exhibition (no need to queue at that point), ignore the filmstrip (you can come back to that later) and go straight into the exhibition which you can then enjoy in blissful emptiness (above right). But don't blithely take my word for it: always check the latest on opening times.

I have already blogged about TWELVE FUN THINGS TO SEE but here are TEN MORE THINGS to look out for.

1. ET TU, PHOENIX? One of the first things you see past the inscriptions and graffiti is this jolly fresco of a Phoenix above two peacocks. Peacocks are real, but the Phoenix is a mythical bird of fiery resurrection. Curator Paul Roberts calls this a "pub sign". It was found on a wall of a fast food joint in Pompeii. The slogan says "The Phoenix is happy (or 'lucky'), and you!" What interests me is the expression "Et tu" which is used elsewhere in Roman contexts as an apotropaic slogan. Apotropaic is Greek for "turns away evil" and it refers to anything that averts bad luck. Apotropaic images include the raised palm of the left hand, erect phalluses, eyes and the unflinching gaze of a full frontal face. All these things "turn back evil". The words "et tu" (and you) seem to have a similar meaning. Our modern equivalent might be "back at you!" In Roman times, if a person approached you with good intentions, saying "et tu" would be a blessing. But if they came at you with evil intent, then the phrase is a curse. This puts Julius Caesar's last words, Et tu, Brute*, in a whole new light!

2. COMIC RELIEF? Next to the famous fresco of Dionysus and Vesuvius in the atrium room is a small marble relief showing the earthquake of AD 62 or 63. If you look closely you will see it is quite comical. For example, the two men depicting equestrian statues look silly and are staring straight out (an apotropaic device) and their horses are actual long-eared donkeys.  Humour is another apotropaic device so I think this sculpture may be saying something like, "We laugh in the face of earthquakes!"

first time seen by public
3. PANTHER TABLE - Curator Paul Roberts said if he could take home one item when the exhibition finishes, it would be this one. That's probably because it languished in a storeroom for many years and he was the first to show it to the public. Like the goat, snake and dolphin, the panther is associated with Dionysus, the patron god of the region. This wonderful table probably would have been painted.

4. BALL 'O' PIGMENT - In a bowl just on the left as you enter the triclinium (dining room) you will see a bowl with two greyish balls. This is how fresco paint came. You would chip off some pigment, grind it in a mortarium, then add egg and water and perhaps a few other ingredients. Finally, the paint was applied to the still-damp plaster. The plaster sucked up the colour and when it dried the painting became part of the wall. That's why these paintings have survived so well. These are the less exciting "white" and "grey" pigments.

5. The NAVEL OF THE WORLD or omphalos is shown on a fresco in the far end of the triclinium room on the right. This fresco screams Apollo. Cupids (the lolcats of the Roman world) frisk around with his bow, his quiver, his lyre, his tripod and possibly a runaway patera. The tripod is especially linked with Apollo because the Delphic oracle sat on one to prophesy. And Delphi was the site of the navel of the world. If you want to know what the navel of the world looked like, there it is underneath the tripod, looking like a fat bollard.

2000 year old loaf of bread
6. Still in the triclinium room is a glass case full of Roman-type "samovars" and portable hearths. Look out for a BRONZE KRATER WITH ARGONAUTS. A krater was for mixing large batches of water and wine. I only noticed the argonauts on my fifth visit, mainly because this room is usually so crowded!

7. ANCIENT PIZZA - OK, it's not pizza because they had no tomatoes in Roman times, but this round loaf of bread looks like puffy pizza. But what's that strange dent around its perimeter? London-based Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli recreated the loaf and came up with a possible cause: a piece of string was tied around the dough, baked in and then used to carry the loaf home.

8. In the culina (kitchen), look out for a PESTLE SHAPED LIKE A THUMB. It is made of white marble and is found below the hare mould for terrine and next to the beautiful sieve with the maker's signature punched in holes. The mortarium containing the thumb pestle has a fun panther face for draining liquid and on the bottom a crude apotropaic Medusa face for turning away evil when it's hung up on the kitchen wall. (You can't see this in the current display mode).

9. Also in the culina you will see a giggle-inducing FRESCO OF MAN DOING A POO (right). This is often cited as an example of Roman belief that demons or other nasty things lived in the sewers. The naked youth is being protected by two lucky snakes and the goddess Fortuna. The curators have placed this fresco in the culina room, because that is where most private Roman latrines were found: in the kitchen, usually right next to the hearth. Paul Roberts says this was because Romans classed wet and smelly things together. (For more about this, see my post on Demon in the Toilet!)

10. Near the end of the exhibition – in the same case as a soldier's sword – is a collection of treasures found on a little girl's charm bracelet. Ironically, considering the cataclysmic bad luck she experienced, most of the objects had an apotropaic sense... but what's with the shrimp? I have heard of apotropaic farting, but never an APOTROPAIC SHRIMP! Answers and suggestions below, please.

*Clever clogs among you might know that what Julius Caesar really said was the Greek version, kai su, teknon, but it makes no difference: the Greek phrase has exactly the same sense as the Latin, maybe even more so! Also teknon can mean "child" or "son", but also more derogative "kid" or even "punk". So Julius Caesar's last words to his final murderer Brutus had a meaning of "You'll get yours, too, punk!"

For more apotropaic images including two "kai su" mosaics, visit my PG-rated Apotropaic Pinterest page.

Caroline Lawrence writes history mystery books for kids aged 8 to 80. No. Really! All the pictures in this post are © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum


  1. I've managed to get one of the last few online tickets - hooray! It's at 8pm on a Sunday, so I suppose I'll only get an hour, and will need to be focused. Thanks for your tips on what to look out for.

    1. If you know the basics about the eruption you can skip the filmstrip and the slightly boring inscriptions. Get to the Phoenix fresco as fast as you can (without missing the dog). You can always go back to see the film intro if you have time. Another tip is to buy the excellent guide BEFOREHAND Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum and read the intro there!

  2. Thanks, Caroline! I do like films, but you're right, I have seen it all before on TV. And I'm tempted to splash out on the book. The other advantage of ordering it in advance is that you don't have to carry a heavy package home on the train!