UNDER THE VOLCANO
Last night I dragged myself out to a talk by a forensic archaeologist who has done a lot of work in Herculaneum. I had a chance to speak with him a while afterward. He elaborated on some things I knew, added information I would never have imagined.
The information on forensic archaeology was brutal--things I knew, but far more detailed information. For example, I knew there were bodies found by the beach, and that many people there were killed by a sudden blast of extraordinary heat. He talked about particular individuals and what they were doing at that moment and what could be surmised about what they had been doing in the minutes or hours beforehand. He explained exactly what happens to a body when that effect occurs, and how forensics specialists can tell which people saw something coming and which ones had no idea and absolutely no time to understand what was happening. He spoke of a man frozen in the act of swallowing a piece of food. He stretched his hand out to demonstrate the effect of the "shimmer of heat," as he described it, and that's when I knew I'd be having nightmares.
He described the physics of the eruption and the pyroclastic flow being almost identical to the physics of the shockwaves from the collapse of the World Trade Center--which, once he said it, seems so obvious: the eruption sent a massive column of matter up into the air, which then collapsed, but with the difference of a wave of heat. He described his work at Ground Zero and things the general public probably just doesn't know about what happened in the narrow streets all around, the same streets I twisted through last night to get to the event. He has worked with the Titanic, and at Hiroshima.
He described removing a doll from the arms of a little girl at Herculaneum to study, and replacing it with a doll inscribed by his children so that remains would be as he found them. He also spoke rather radically about the sociology of the town. Although it's all the same elements that are already in or planned for the story, I'm not sure I want to get quite that radical with the interpretation--my studies (both formal and otherwise) come from one point of view, and his come from a very different approach to the subject. I'm not sure his knowledge of the workings of ancient society is as broad or as in depth, though it is certainly informed by his broad knowledge of the physical evidence; he spoke much of basing his conclusions on a small set of physical clues as if gathering bits and pieces from a crime scene, but I'd love to get into more of a conversation with him about his knowledge of the overarching social context. Overall, his comments on the social structure of Herculaneum in general and on the houses and people used in the story were encouraging--it's nice to know that I'm not being outstripped by the continuing archaeology of the site.
We disagree, I think, on the quality of life in the ancient world. It was hard to tell--he said both positive and negative things with great enthusiasm. I couldn't tell whether he was calling ancient Rome the "dark ages" or sarcastically saying "how could you call this a bad time to live?" and I didn't have a chance to follow up on that. He was very excited about ancient plumbing. But then, so am I.
His life is far more interesting than mine (but whose isn't?). I gave him a business card with the comic's URL. I am sure he thinks I'm crazy.
Remains of the Bay
I'd known that a lot of people were pushed off the hillside in Herculaneum by the shockwave (that also blasted the furnishings out of some houses and tossed it all into the bay, though other houses and their goods are perfectly preserved, wood and scrolls and glass dishware and platters set with rolls and bowls of nuts and all ("shock cocoons"). While Pompeii was being smothered by rising debris, Herculaneum went pretty quickly and is much more literally a moment frozen in time. And difficult to loot until more modern times
Archaeologists can tell that down at the waterfront some people came running around a corner into the caves at great speed, and the men and the soldier down at the boats had enough time to flip a small boat over themselves for protection. He--I should give him a name already, Charles Pellegrino--described what they would have seen that would have made so many people suddenly race for shelter. But those whose views were blocked wouldn't have realised anything was coming when the heat blast rolled over them. (All of you must share my sense of deep visceral horror! Though I guess if you have to go and be preserved for 1900 years until you get dug up and exposed to the air then badly re-preserved with acrylic sealant, that's the way to go. Uhm...)
I can't precisely say when I first became so fascinated with Herculaneum or why I bypassed Pompeii and zeroed in on the sister city. But as for the inspiration for SPQR Blues, I know the exact moment: the spark that started me working on this particular story was an article about the Herculaneum soldier that mentioned he had a little belt bag of tools. One brain cell led to another, and things got all out of hand, and here we are. The article was about the quality of teeth in a society with no refined sugar but with grain ground in mortar-and-pestle. If I recall correctly, the soldier had good teeth, except for maybe a couple knocked out in accidents. Poor soldier. Bad Vesuvius.
I don't think the destruction of Herculaneum has ever been depicted in precise graphic-novel detail. I don't think so, anyway. Maybe I'll get started now on planning that out. Because I do know exactly where each one of our intrepid characters will be on that particular day.... But am I a merciful creator, or an evil one...? Time will tell.