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Educators Comparing Mount Vesuvius Eruption with Northern Arizona’s Volcanic Activity

One of the most noted natural disasters in history was the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which buried and preserved the Roman city of Pompeii in volcanic ash and rock. Educators like Sari Custer, vice president of curiosity at the Arizona Science Center, compare the volcanic activity with geologic processes in Northern Arizona.

“When Mount Vesuvius was erupting, there were over 600 volcanoes in Arizona at that time. So, there was a lot of activity happening here, which was happening in Italy. And there was an eruption about 1,000 years ago here in Arizona that would have been similar, where Native Americans were onsite documenting and had to leave their homes because of that eruption.”

The Sunset Crater eruption north of Flagstaff caused a curtain of fire 850 feet high, say geologists. Like Mount Vesuvius, explosions showered the landscape with volcanic material. To gain an understanding of what unfortunate Pompeiians experienced during that fateful 24-hour period on Aug. 24 and 25, 79 A.D., POMPEII: THE EXHIBITION in Phoenix offers a four-dimensional Eruption Theater simulating what scientists imagine would be the sounds and feel of Pompeii as enormous volumes of gas, ash and rock rained down on the city. Visitors experience vibrations, wind gusts and sounds of buildings collapsing.

“There are still at least two areas in Northern Arizona that are being monitored by the USGS [United States Geological Survey] and are not completely dormant,” said Custer. “Although they are not active, there’s still the possibility that one day we might have that eruption again. And it’s a great opportunity for us to talk about how technology is advancing as far as early warning detection systems and looking at earthquakes, and how we can save lives and prevent what happened in Pompeii from happening in Northern Arizona.”


Technology Revealing More About Ancient Life


Archaeologists continue to learn more about the eruption, the people and lifestyles in the ancient city with the aid of modern technology. Digital imaging and photogrammetry help document ruins and artifacts at risk from erosion, exposure and foot traffic. CAT scans show that many of the victims died from head injuries. And MRIs reveal more about the health of the residents.

“Archaeologists are now scanning some of the remains from Pompeii and learning that ancient Romans had perfect teeth, and part of that was due to their very healthy Mediterranean diet, which looks a lot like the Mediterranean diet that we know today,” said Custer.

There was a variety of food available to the port city, like fish, bread, beans, olives, peaches, pears, dates, almonds and walnuts. The people drank wine from nearby vineyards. On display are ashen dried fruit on serving dishes. So are large pots, used to keep mice.

“Dormice, at the time, were actually a huge food staple as far as an appetizer goes. It was the potato skins of the time,” said Custer. “They would keep mice in these pots with air holes, so they would live. They would fatten them over time in these pots in the kitchen, and then serve them as appetizers.”

POMPEII: THE EXHIBITION also reveals sustainability features. “The first piece that you see when you walk into the exhibition is a beautiful atrium from a wealthier Pompeiian home. The atrium would have been designed to collect rain water. There’s a hole where the rain would have fallen right into the house and a basin at the bottom to collect it and then distribute it throughout the household. While it seems very simple and we’re doing that actively today, that was something that was on their minds, as well.”

The exhibit showcases cooking and medical tools, elaborate wall-sized frescoes, mosaics, marble and bronze sculptures, jewelry, statues and Roman coins. As live entertainment was an important part of the lifestyle, theater masks are on display, as well as helmets worn by gladiators. However, the most powerful portion of the exhibition may well be the body casts of adults and children, whose expressions and positions are frozen in time. FBN


By Bonnie Stevens, FBN

POMPEII: THE EXHIBITION runs through May 28, 2018, at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix. Ticket information is available at



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