Resurrecting Pompeii
Estelle Lazer
386 pp, Routledge, 2009 (Paperback)

Available from HTANSW:
Standard price $55.00 + postage (GST inclusive).
HTA NSW member price $45.00 + postage (GST inclusive)

Estelle Lazer worked at Pompeii for many years examining the skeletal remains stored, if that is the correct term, from the last three or more centuries of excavation. This is the result of her research. Those who have been lucky enough to hear Estelle lecture will not be surprised by the clarity and pervading logic of her narrative, nor by the touches of quirky humour that emerge. From the first page the tone is a ‘double whammy’, both engaging and scholarly.

The book is in two parts. Part 1, The last Days of Pompeii, the first four chapters, discusses the obvious fascination with human remains at Pompeii but poses the question of why there has been so little scientific research.

Chapter 1 Skeletons as Artefacts, begins with a discussion of the use of skeletons as props in vignettes and tableaux to entertain ‘tourists’ to Pompeii; skeletons regarded as artefacts not sources. An over view of the history and philosophy of excavations in Campania is followed by a review of popular literature which emphasises the influence of Bulwer-Lytton which she claims still pervades public and ‘official’ attitudes. The “Pompeii Premise” is effectively debunked and the practice of ‘refleshing’ skeletons is discussed with reference to Sara Bisel and a recent BBC ‘documentary’. There is material here that could be easily worked into an archaeological case study for students.

Chapter 2 is an apparent digression in which the treatment and study of human remains in Egypt are compared to Pompeii. With contemporaneous archaeological histories, similar popular media interests and influences Egyptology has produced cutting edge research and has pioneered the use of x-rays, CT scans and, more recently, electron microscopy while at Pompeii such analysis has been difficult, even discouraged, until quite recently.

An outline of the medical and anthropological research conducted on the Pompeian skeleton is the subject of Chapter 3. The work of Nicolucci in the 1880s, based on craniology and craniometry, which are both discredited today, would be a useful discussion starter for consideration of archaeologists and their contexts. This leads to a consideration of population studies including those done by Bisel and Capasso at Herculaneum.

When discussing the eruption sequence in Chapter 4, Context of a Mass Disaster, the author is critical of both Pliny the Younger and Sigurdsson. She discusses casualties, causes of death, survival factors and post eruption ‘intrusions’. Her conclusion is that most people escaped the walled town but may be found in the future, outside the town. Lazer also raises significant issues about a number of assumptions that have been made about the composition and size of the Pompeian population. This chapter would be compulsory reading in my classroom.

Part 2, The victims, examines the actual evidence available from skeletal remains found at Pompeii emphasising the ‘compromised’ sample and the incomplete but tantalising ‘glimpses’ this affords us of the Pompeians. The text is marked by an appreciation of the degree of uncertainty that results.

In Chapter 5, The nature of the evidence, the emphasis is on the ‘Pompeii Skeletal Project’ and the problems and limitations of conducting research using data sets derived from a sample which is composed of disarticulated, undocumented skeletal remains that have no archaeological provenance. Nonetheless this remains an important sample of Roman ‘bodies’, all with known cause of death and time of death, therefore worthy of research. The chapter concludes with a consideration of facial reconstruction. The details of how the bones were stored, and the telling analogy of discarded stage ‘props’, raises important ethical issues that could be fruitfully discussed in any Year 12  classroom.

The next four chapters deal with the research design, findings and conclusions about attribution of sex, determination of age-at-death, general health and life-style indicators, and the composition of the population of Pompeii. The results are discussed in the context of previous studies including those done at Herculaneum recently. Lazer is obviously sceptical of previous attempts to link life-style activity to skeletal ‘indicators’. She also raises questions about the supposed heterogeneity of the population. She makes suggestions for possible further research. Your students may not read these chapters but the conclusions will be important for their attempts to reconstruct the lives of the people of Pompeii.

In Chapter 10, The casts, we are presented with an historical overview of arguably the most famous archaeological ‘technique’ practised at Pompeii. The role, of casts in story-telling from Bulwer-Lytton to Maiuri is discussed. Estelle Lazer pioneered the x-raying of casts when the “Lady of Oplontis” was in Sydney in the 1990s and recommends that this would still be a useful addition to our data. The description of sculptural ‘enhancement’ of some casts raises some issues that would initiate discussion in your HSC classroom.

As its title suggests, Chapter 11, Making Sense, wraps up the discussion of the results of her years of research. Lazer makes a final plea for scientific rather than romantic reporting and for further research on the population of Pompeii and Herculaneum. She concludes with some thoughts on ethics and human remains.

To help with understanding the scientific and medical terms there is a Glossary and two appendices of terms and diagrams. There is also an appendix outlining the history of excavations at Pompeii.

This is the most up to date research available on the HSC Ancient History Core topic. As I have suggested above, your students may not read this entire book, but they should read many sections, large chunks of it. It has up-to-date material that teachers, with a little thought, can put to work in their classroom.


Denis Mootz




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