the plaster casts of Pompeii / by Anthony Gibbins

This aerial shot depicts excavation, restoration and reconstruction at Pompeii. Claudia describes the area as a locus mirabilis marvellous place. One of the wonderful things about the Pompeii model is that it mixes three broad time frames (and a little fantasy) into one broad scene; ancient Pompeii, the town’s rediscovery, and modern tourism and study. In a single street you might see merchants selling bread from an ancient bakery, Mozart, visiting the temple of Isis when he was 13 years of age, Amedeo Maiuri, director of the dig for 37 years (1924-1961), Australian archaeologist Steven Ellis, who made headlines for overseeing one of archaeology’s first digs to use iPads, and Doctor Who. In this shot, standing under a purple and white striped umbrella, is Vittorio Spinazzola, director of excavation from 1910 to 1923. Under his direction we learnt a great deal more about the town’s shops and housing.

But most striking is the long line of plaster casts; no one who has been to Pompeii, visited the Naples Museum, or flicked through a guide-book, can forget encountering these ghostly figures. They capture the final (frightened) moments of individuals, friends, families and even animals as they perished. Thirteen can be seen today in the Garden of the Fugitives lying in situ where they fell. There are two in the Sabine Baths, two in the Macellum, and another two in the Villa of Mysteries. There are some in houses that are rarely opened to the public, and others stacked unceremoniously in storage sheds. More still are displayed respectfully in the Naples Museum. For many, they are the enduring image of Pompeii.

The plaster casts owe their existence to Giuseppo Fiorelli, director of excavations from 1860 to 1875. Others had recognised the significance of the cavities formed in the deposits of hardened ash resting over the town’s remains. In 1777, the bones of a young woman were found at the Villa Diomede. As well as her skeleton, the outline of her upper torso was clearly visible in the material packed beneath her. But it was Fiorelli and his team who developed the technique of injecting liquid plaster into the cavities before they were excavated, enabling them to capture the last moments of around one hundred of Vesuvius’ victims. This passage from Mary Beard speaks to their evocative power;

One group of four, found in a street near the Forum, was probably an entire family trying to make its escape. The father went in front, a burley man, with big bushy eyebrows (as the plaster cast reveals). He had pulled his cloak over his head, to protect himself from falling ash and debris, and carried with him some gold jewellery (a simple finger-ring and a few ear-rings), a couple of keys and, in this case, a reasonable amount of cash, at almost 400 sesterces. His two small daughters followed, while the mother brought up the rear. She had hitched up her dress to make the walking easier, and was carrying more household valuables in a little bag: the family silver (some spoons, a pair of goblets, a medallion with the figure of Fortuna, a mirror) and a small squat figurine of a little boy, wrapped up in a cloak, his bare feet peeking out at the bottom. It is a crude piece of work, but it is made out of amber, which must have travelled many hundreds of kilometres from the nearest source of supply in the Baltic; hence its prized status. Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town pp. 4-5

In the 1990’s x-rays were taken of the casts for the first time, revealing invaluable information about the bones and or artefacts trapped within. Today a technique similar to Fiorelli’s is practised, but with a clear resin that allows all these things to be seen and studied. 

Soon I found I marvellous place where very learned people were working. Some were digging up the earth, others were inspecting the bodies of the dead.


The Lego model of Pompeii is housed in the Nicholson Museum of The University of Sydney, Australia. Entry to the museum is entirely free, and you may visit Monday to Friday between 10:00 and 4:30. The Nicholson is Australia’s oldest University museum and contains the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere. 

The Pompeii model was commissioned by the Nicholson and constructed by LEGO Professional Builder Ryan McNaught. It is the third such model the museum has exhibited, following the Colosseum and Acropolis.  The Colosseum was returned to McNaught and recently exhibited around Australia. The Acropolis was denoted by the Nicholson to the Acropolis Museum in Athens. The Pompeii model is estimated to include 190 000 bricks and took 420 hours to complete.