Try if you can to imagine this scenario: you are in the Roman town of Pompeii and the date is mid August, 79 AD. There is one week to go before Vesuvius spews its molten lava everywhere and obliterates the place. Sulphur is in the air and the earth is creaking and trembling. There are no two ways about it: you are facing an environmental disaster and the ‘world’ as you know it is about to end. Well, in the face of such certain doom, what would you do? Run or hide? Remember that the bodies of both those who hid and those caught as fleeing on the road out of town have been found carbonised at Pompeii. Another solution would be: divide your household rubbish up, and put it into separate bins of glass, plastic, tin, etc.
But this modern solution to a very ancient catastrophe isn’t part of some new archaeological discovery Roman recycling bins have not yet been discovered at Pompeii. It’s a scene set in Pompeii from the latest series of comedy sketches by British comedy duo Mitchell and Webb now on youtube (for those outside the UK who can’t watch BBC iPlayer), and brought to my attention thanks to Blogging Pompeii.
Watch it on YouTube of click ‘play’ below:
So what did people actually do in the run up to the eruption, thought to have gone off on the 24th of August 79 AD? According to Mary Beard, in her book Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, far fewer people than previously thought would have actually perished in the eruption. Most would have left town in good time and it is thought that less than 10 per cent of the population did not escape alive. There were of course those who left it too late to leave and many bodies were found hiding in basements, or burnt by the pyroclastic blast as they were leaving. But their activities in the run up to the disaster? More likely to have been packing bags, packing furniture onto carts and removing as much as possible from their houses. According to Beard, many of the houses were found with large items of furniture missing. Many of the inhabitants obviously had an idea of what was coming and they weren’t taking the chance of leaving their most precious belongings behind.
The Pompeiians must have been more sensible than Mitchell and Webb give them credit for… which just leaves the little matter of our modern disaster-aversion strategies. Well, until they think of something better, I’ll just carry on recycling my glass bottles and cans.