British Museum shows life and death in Herculaneum
Shimmering as if still lit by the Mediterranean sun, two Roman marble panels have been reunited at the British Museum for the first time in almost 2,000 years.
Both come from a seaside mansion in Herculaneum, the town overwhelmed by a torrent of mud from Vesuvius after Pompeii had already choked to death. They will be seen in an eagerly awaited archaeological exhibition on life and death in the Roman towns when it opens at the museum later this month.
The exhibition is creating a buzz, with more than 34,000 tickets sold. Its curator, Paul Roberts, compares it to the famous Tutankhamen exhibition at the British Museum in 1972, when as a teenager he queued for half a day.
Many of the objects have never been exhibited even in Italy, and some, such as one of the marble reliefs, were excavated only in the past few years. Others are among the treasures of the national archaeology museum in Naples, including a startlingly life-like fresco portrait of a baker and his wife from Pompeii and a marble from Herculaneum of the god Pan having sex with a goat.
The first of the marble reliefs, an ecstatic and tipsy celebration of the god Bacchus, was found at Herculaneum 30 years ago. The excavation uncovered a villa terraced down to the sea and the panel. The reliefs, in the classical Greek style and possibly carved by a Greek artist for a Roman master, were wildly fashionable among the wealthy of Herculaneum and the Roman elite. There are records of the philosopher and statesman Cicero seeking such panels to decorate his home.
It was feared the excavation had destabilised the site, so three years ago the United States-financed Herculaneum Conservation Project, which has been working in the town for the past decade, returned for consolidation work. On the last day of the work, mud caked on a broken wall fell away revealing the second panel, in pristine condition.
Roberts suspects there must have been a third panel, on a wall swept into the sea. "Like so much of the town and its people, the third panel must have been crushed to atom. We are so astonishingly lucky in what has been left to us to be able to bear witness to what has been lost."