Elad Ben Elul

Anthropology, Digital Life & Food

My Pompeii experience…and why people shouldn’t be remembered

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Last week I fulfilled a long lasting dream and visited the city of Pompeii, located near Napoli, at the foot of mount vesuvius. My visit to Pompeii- a Roman city that was buried in its entirety by a fierceful volcano eruption in 79 AD- was a powerful experience that gave me some insights about memory, preservation and the material culture of death.

Walking in Pompeii’s streets and allies, stepping in and out of what used to be houses, bars, restaurants and bath-houses, I felt ghosts and spirits in everything they left behind. I heard echos and sounds and felt the sharp contrast between the touristic monument it is today to the vibrant city it once was.

The astonishing amount of objects and structures that remained there made me think about everything we leave behind us, as individuals, as families and as members of a city- all the material objects that will tell our story one day. More precisely it made me think of all of those things that will be deleted, destroyed, renovated and decayed – lost forever in forgotten history. Should we be taking more snapshots of our cities for centuries to come?

Unlike us, and unlike our cities- Pompeii is remembered, and so are its people. They are remembered in the most accurate, timeless and well preserved way anyone can possibly be. Their face features, body gestures, jewellery, clothes, houses, pets, stories- all placed onto a time capsule that is constantly researched, exhibited, discussed and portrayed. Isn’t this everyone’s greatest aspiration? The truth is that such perfect material immortality always come with a price.

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Pompeii was a regular city, nowhere near as grand or famous as Rome. Its people, many of whom were freed slaves, women and common traders, were also just average people. Had such a tragic disaster not come over the city, had the volcanic ash and stones wouldn’t have buried the city in its entirety, turning its residents into status- we would probably never know anything about them today (as well as many other things we know about the Roman Empire thanks to Pompeii & Herculaneum). It is only due to the tragedy that such flawless preservation took place, only thanks to the fast death and its cruel totality, that we get to visit the latest exhibition in the British museum and see silver cutlery,  cosmetics, water fountains, furniture and even a family in its very last moments, all so perfectly preserved.

And isn’t this the case with most things that are “remembered”? Titanic lies at the bottom of the sea and its victims are constantly memorialised. Same goes for the Holocaust, the Twin Towers, fallen soldiers, musicians who died young, a child that was killed in a horrifying accident. It is when death strikes without warning, that things are perfectly preserved, stuck forever in that point in time, never to be continued.

Napoli- what Pompei may have looked like today.

Napoli- what Pompei may have looked like today.

Yet we aspire to be included in the pantheon of memory as well; We archive our belongings, take photographs, save digital files and printed documents with the hope of being remembered, being significant, and making sure those who come after us will have a clue about who we once were. Everytime I change or update something, re-decorate my room, change my wardrobe, or throw away something to the bin, I feel a certain guilt- as if things aren’t preserved and will never be how they were- but Pompeii has taught me that life is about now, about moving ahead, about being forgotten but enjoying every moment of it.

The truth is that as long as we keep on living we will continue to de-archive our bodies, our houses and our cities. We will move and age and change with the latest fashion. Our city councils will renovate and destroy roads, new buildings will rise, walls will be painted, people will move in and out. Same goes for our digital presence, our ever changing Facebook profiles, updated websites, desktop wallpapers and hard drives. Just like Napoli existed in the time of Pompeii and now looks completely modern, it is living that require our material surrounding to evolve. We will evolve, things around us will evolve, and hopefully nothing will archive us until it is time for our boring regular farewell.

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A mosaic of a skeleton holding wine found in a Pompeii dinning room, reminding the diners to enjoy every moment in life.

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This entry was posted on May 15, 2013 by and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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