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Out of the ashes

A new Te Papa exhibition brings to life the story of Pompeii, which has fascinated the world ever since the remains of the city destroyed by Mt Vesuvius were discovered in the 19th century.

The couple hold each other, his arm around her in a poignant attempt to ward off the ash and pumice raining down from the sky. Perhaps they were husband and wife, perhaps brother and sister. We may never know. But we can bear witness to their final moments as Mt Vesuvius erupted around them, almost 2000 years ago.

These are not bodies but moulds taken from the void in the ash where their bodies once lay. But they still resonate, providing us with a deeply human connection to the Romans living in Pompeii in 79AD. People who, in the end, were not so different from us.

These resin casts of the plaster of Paris moulds, first taken by an Italian archaeologist in the 1860s, are among more than 250 objects that make up A Day in Pompeii at Te Papa.

The objects, from Italy's Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, in association with Melbourne Museum, include sublime frescoes, perfectly preserved glass vessels and gladiator armour. There are uncannily familiar-looking medical instruments, a carbonised loaf of bread and even examples of first-century graffiti: "Celadus the Thracian makes all the girls sigh." And the casts, among them a crouching man holding his cloak over his mouth against the toxic fumes, and a dog, left to guard a grand villa, writhing fruitlessly against its chain.

Though some people may find the casts confronting, Melbourne Museum's exhibitions manager, Eve Almond, says the approach has been one of respect and empathy. At Te Papa, the casts are displayed in a separate room so visitors can choose whether to see them.

When Vesuvius erupted, it caused a cataclysmic storm of such devastating force the locals in the provincial port city of Pompeii assumed the Apocalypse was upon them.

Think nuclear blast, Almond says, rather than a river of molten lava. "They had hours and hours of hot ash and fine stones raining down on top of them. That filled up the houses so people who didn't get out in the first 12 hours or so, who might have taken shelter in the cellar, would find they couldn't open the door. Then a cloud of super-heated gas billowed down and engulfed all."

Fortunately, it is thought that about 80% of the population fled in time, to wander around in a devastated landscape. Their world was burnt, covered in ash, the coastline changed forever. "When you have a natural event like that - a column of superheated gas going up 30km into the atmosphere - the whole of the weather pattern is interrupted: there are huge thunderstorms, they had days of mud pouring down on top of them and electrical storms."

Those who fled include Pliny the Younger, a teenage nobleman who provides the only surviving eye-witness account. He writes of the column of gas rising up "like an umbrella pine for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches ..." and later, in a chilling echo of the recent events in Samoa, how he saw the sea "sucked away so that quantities of sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand".

In less than 48 hours, Pompeii, home to around 12,000 nobles, slaves and free men, was buried under 10 metres of ash. It was rediscovered by chance, almost 17 centuries later, when an Italian architect was diverting a river in the area. The story of the city has fascinated the world ever since: even now, at any one time between five and eight Pompeii exhibitions are touring the globe, Almond says.

"Pompeii has all the emotional connections: the Roman Empire is one of the greatest empires to influence our civilisation; it is first century; Jerusalem has been sacked; the Diaspora has happened; Rome is at the height of its powers; there are New Testament connections. First-century Rome has resonance for us."

The terrifying rain of ash also provided a unique method of preservation. "It filled up the houses and preserved them until they were re-excavated. There is no other archaeological site in the world that allows us to uncover a period in time in the way Pompeii does."

The freshness of the buildings was also helped by the fact some of the city had only recently been rebuilt, after an earlier earthquake in 62AD, which toppled tall buildings. It is believed the frescoes in some of the new villas had barely dried before they were buried beneath the ash.

Pompeii is about the extraordinary in the everyday. The objects provide a direct, tangible link to another world. There are simple clay stoves, used by freed slaves to cook on the balconies of their apartments; bronze plumbing stopcocks that look just like the ones we use today; a slave's gold arm bracelet with an inscription from her lover/master. "In the ordinary things, there is a connection with humanity that touches us at a very basic level," Almond says.

These are relics from what was once a sophisticated, bustling, prosperous port city. There were inns, temples, shops and brothels. Pompeii's nobility lived in grand marble villas with garden courtyards, with the less well-to-do in three-storey apartment blocks. Most of the population were slaves, working for the rich, and the freed slaves - the first-?century nouveau riche, perhaps - ran small businesses such as wine bars and fast-food outlets. Not hamburgers, though: more likely bean stew. The rich volcanic soils produced olives and wine and the city was famous for its garum, a popular sauce made from fermented fish guts.

Pompei had five sets of public baths. The wealthy would spend several hours a day at the most lavish of these, exercising, bathing and doing business. For entertainment, the locals might take in a comedy at the theatre or attend the hugely popular amphitheatre, where one could watch animals of prey attacking in the morning, eat lunch while viewing the executions of criminals and then sit back as the gladiators battled away the afternoon.

The wealthy would most likely have a leisurely dinner at home, in their garden room beside a tinkling fountain, enjoying such delicacies as stuffed dormouse, prepared by their slaves.

As project manager for the exhibition, Almond travelled to Pompeii and was struck by its eerie atmosphere. "Even though it was very busy, there is a sort of hush over the whole site: it is the most extraordinary experience. There are parts of it where you can stand and not see any of the surrounding suburbs. You can close your eyes and imagine what it must have been like."

The exhibition A Day in Pompeii aims to enable that, too, with soundscapes and theatre sets allowing visitors to walk down a bustling Pompeii street, window-shopping at the stores and businesses, including a bakery and pharmacy. They can take a virtual tour through a wealthy family's private residence, with its atrium, bedroom, dining room, kitchen and garden. 

There is also a virtual movie of the eruption, made by Australian computer-game designers, showing hour by hour how the volcano eventually smothered the city.

Pompeii is yet to give up all its secrets, as about a quarter of the 65ha site is still to be excavated. There is currently a moratorium on further excavation, while archaeologists go back and meticulously reinvestigate previously exposed sites before they deteriorate further. "In the 18th and 19th centuries, they were looking for treasure: loot and plunder was the primary motivation," Almond says. "Material that we would now consider to be very important - like an ordinary clay pot or pan - they discarded in favour of jewellery and silver serving bowls."

Contemporary archaeologists are picking over the remains of cess-pits, for instance, gathering information on what the Romans ate - and what parasites were in their gut. People dropped things down the loo in the first century just as they do today and a number of artefacts, including a little bronze jug, have been found in this way.

Today's technology makes it possible to measure sites with heat-sensitive lasers - incredibly accurate and non-invasive - and to carry out root analysis on plants to discover what was growing in gardens 2000 years ago.

But it is the objects that hold the power: from a set of loaded dice to a fast-food container to a gladiator's helmet with viewing holes deliberately designed to admit the prong of a pitchfork.

For Almond, it all comes back to the quality of the craftsmanship and the technical expertise the artefacts reveal. "There's a glass jar that looks just like a 19th-century one. There's a beautiful glass cremation urn. They were blowing glass and colouring it and these pieces of glass have survived the eruption, been buried for hundreds of years, survived being excavated and then they have been sent halfway round the world."