ORR Latin Program Experiences Pompeii

About 100 students from Old Rochester Regional High School (a number that includes nearly all of the students from the Latin program of study in the foreign language department) took a field trip to the Museum of Science in Boston on Friday, December 16.

The all-day field trip brought students to the new exhibit about Pompeii, entitled “A Day in Pompeii.” Students attending the trip came from all levels of Latin class, ranging from introductory Latin I to Honors Latin V, and all were very familiar with the story of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the imminent destruction of Pompeii and lesser-known Herculaneum in A.D. 79.

A staple video from the Honors Latin II class was used by the entire language program a few weeks prior to the trip in order to show students what the eruption would have been like from the vantage point of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and nearby Misenum, a city and naval base from where Roman citizen Pliny the Younger had observed the eruption. Pliny the Younger wrote letters throughout his life, and it is from one of these letters that posterity has a description of the eruption as it progressed — a description that has helped archeologists and volcanologists determine the nature of explosive volcanic eruptions.

From this video, students also learned about different artifacts that have been recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum — for example, there is a gold snake bracelet that had been given to a slave woman by her master — that appeared at the exhibit in Boston. While the exhibit did have plaques that explained where the artifact came from (identifying the owners of villas in Pompeii), the video brought those people to life.

The exhibit was divided into different categories. First, students got to look at the art and culture of Pompeii. There were four or five large frescoes reconstructed on the walls of the exhibit. One of them was the entire back wall of what would have been an outdoor dining room in a villa’s garden. There were also numerous statues of gods and goddesses, including several of the god of wine, Bacchus. Near this section of the exhibit, there was a video playing that talked about everyday life in Pompeii, focusing mainly on the baths and laundry. Many students and chaperones were shocked to learn that the Romans actually used urine (because of the natural ammonia content) to bleach clothes.

The next section of the exhibit was on home life, and contained many cooking utensils and a few braziers, as well as the frame of a couch used in the dining rooms of the villas. One case contained various carbonized foodstuffs, including a carbonized loaf of bread that had been found in an oven at a bakery in Pompeii. The Latin classes at Old Rochester Regional use a recipe for this “Roman Bread” that was found in Pompeii to make their own loaves for feast days (like the Saturnalia feast that takes place this week) and were pleased to see that their bread is literally the same (minus the carbon).

The third section of the exhibit took on a somber feel, as it contained the body casts — and this is the section in which the students from Old Rochester Regional spent the most amount of time. There are truly no words to describe the experience of seeing these casts. One thing that is worth noting, though, is that the Romans were incredibly short compared to modern standards. That doesn’t generally come across when one looks at a picture of the casts.

The following section of the exhibit was society and entertainment. Two artifacts come to mind. The first is a gladiator’s helmet, which the caption explained was that of a murmillo. Murmillos were gladiators who were heavily armored and tended to be large in size; with the weight of their armor, they had limited mobility but gained the advantage of being able to hunker down in the arena and pivot in a circle to continually face their opponents. Murmillos can be thought of as human snapping turtles. The second notable artifact was a pair of loaded dice. This artifact was interesting because in the Roman empire, gambling was against the law — yet everyone gambled anyway.

The last section of the exhibit focused on religion, and mainly contained various sculptures of the Roman gods and goddesses. Following this section of the exhibit, the students re-entered the rest of the Museum by walking across a giant map of the world with labels for all of the active volcanoes.

At 11:00 am, the students from Old Rochester Regional journeyed to another part of the Museum for the purpose of watching a demonstration entitled “Vesuvius: Story of an Eruption.” In this demonstration, students got to watch a video about the letter that Pliny the Younger wrote, and then got an explanation of the science behind the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Students mainly learned about the difference between effusive and explosive volcanic eruptions, and what makes an explosive volcanic eruption so dangerous.

Students returned to Old Rochester Regional High School with fourteen minutes to spare before the school day officially ended. As one of the Latin teachers, Ms. Prétat, justified, the field trip served as a great overture for the students who will be going on a school board-sanctioned trip to Rome during February vacation this year. One of the stops on the trip’s itinerary is the recovered ruins of Pompeii.

By Anne Smith

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