Estelle Lazer and the Bathhouse of Horror / by Anthony Gibbins

On today’s page, Claudia examines the skeletal remains of a young woman who died during the Vesuvius eruption. She concludes that the assembling of bones is a difficult task. To her right, holding an oversized magnifying glass, is Dr Estelle Lazer, an extraordinary archaeologist who has spent many seasons in Pompeii doing just that (and so much more). Through her work we have gained a better understanding of what information the skeletal remains of Pompeii can actually provide. And she has yielded tantalising glimpses into the lives and deaths of the victims of Pompeii.

Her monograph, Resurrecting Pompeii, was published in 2009. After reading the following extract, you will want to read more. Or watch Indiana Jones. It could go either way.

The environment in which the bones are stored is as romantic as the novels that have served to popularise the site. The majority of the human skeletons have been stored in an ancient bath building, the Terme del Sarno. This structure is situated to the south of the Forum. The Sarno Bath complex was first used as a repository for ancient bones and casts in the early 1930s when modern stone walls were incorporated into the structure and iron bars were inserted to deny access through doors and windows.

When I commenced work on this project, the road to the Sarno Baths was not accessible to tourists and was overgrown with wild fennel. Entering the Sarno Baths was like being immersed in a classic B grade movie. The modern iron gates at the entrance to the baths had rusted shut and had to be forced open by guards. The entrance was completely obscured by brambles that had to be hacked away with a machete. Access was obtained via a dimly lit barrel-vaulted sloping passageway.

The next level down was reached by a crumbling set of stairs. This level contained what has been interpreted as the women’s baths. The ceilings are covered with stucco and vibrant paintings. Mounds of bones and the remains of casts that could no longer be displayed due to dismemberment of limbs littered the floor, along with the remains of portions of marble statues, such as the odd disembodied foot. The human bones stored in this building had been indiscriminately piled along with the bones of other animals, like horses, sheep, goats and dogs.

The Sarno Bath building houses its own ecosystem, directly associated with the presence of skeletal remains. There were various rodents, cats, bats, snakes, spiders and various insects, such as carpenter bees and beetles. Birds had been nesting in the bones for many years; the inside of a cranium apparently formed an excellent basis for a nest. In a number of cases it was necessary to remove over a centimetre of bird lime from bones before they could be examined. Occasionally, a large green lizard would unexpectedly drop off the ceiling onto my workbook. Resurrecting Pompeii pp. 99-100

I was able to inspect the bones of a certain young woman who had been killed by Vesuvius. It is a difficult task to correctly organise the bones.

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.