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Resurrecting Pompeii

Resurrecting Pompeii

By Estelle Lazer. Pp. xvii + 386, figs. 66, tables 30. Routledge, New York 2011. $40.95. ISBN 978-0-145-66633-6 (paper).

Reviewed by

Lazer has undertaken the difficult task of using the extensive data from her studies of the human remains at Pompeii, the subject of her doctoral dissertation, to reconstruct a picture of life in that ancient city. Cobbling together information on sundry aspects of a population that died on the same day nearly 2,000 years ago presents a challenge that she has handled honestly and directly. Her balanced, scholarly account provides a welcome change from the popularizing approach that dominates even the academic literature.

The four chapters making up part 1 address the context from which these skeletal remains were recovered. These begin with “Skeletons as Artefacts,” an intellectual history of early “excavations” at Pompeii and Herculaneum and a review of the mythology that emerged, along with the earliest reports. Lazer deftly describes “the whole genre of literature” (18) that emerged from the finds at Pompeii, with particular focus on the skeletons. Her astute understanding of how the literary tradition created a “culture of bodies” (9), and how this culture influenced what has become academic dogma, provides the basis for her impressive review. Her demonstration of the impact of popular accounts on the course of academic research at Pompeii has parallels in archaeological efforts throughout the world. Of particular importance, as well as general interest, is her wonderful review of both the scholarly and “popular works with academic pretentions” (32). As Lazer demonstrates, this approach is alive and well in the 21st century. Her brilliant depiction of the interplay between fiction and supposedly scientific writings is worth the price of this book and deserves to be widely recognized.

Lazer’s perceptive consideration of influences of popular culture on the scholarly tradition continues in her second chapter. Here, she condenses the history of Egyptian tourism and how popular interest in mummies played a role in that realm. While I doubt her conclusion that scientific research in Egypt was less influenced by the writings of novelists, her suggestion merits consideration. Lazer then traces the history of human skeletons as an anthropological resource, with emphasis on the sample from Pompeii. Her narrative, sometimes repetitive, includes valuable commentary on the various skeletal research programs that focused on Herculaneum, the other major city destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius. She affords us an appropriate and circumspect review of the politics and problems that are embedded within these modern studies.

The final chapter of part 1 examines the earthquake that struck the area 17 years before 79 C.E., population dynamics during those years, and the literature on population estimates pertaining to this area. Social interactions within ancient Pompeii, and decisions by the survivors to relocate or to remain after the earthquake, form a central question. Population “guestimates” are a major literary industry in every area of archaeology. Lazer points out that estimates for the population at Pompeii “range between 6,400 and 30,000” (73), with writers rarely stating if their figures apply to the period before or after the earthquake. Before going to her second section (“The Victims”), Lazer reveals problems involved in generalizing from a sample of skeletons when we have almost no idea what the total population may have been or what percentage of those people were killed on that specific day. This basic question of sample size, so fundamental within the field of paleopathology, is carefully discussed.

The seven chapters of part 2 begin with a review of the basic evidence. She opens with a wonderful description of the dungeonlike storage facilities holding these bones. In her introduction, Lazer accurately explains the limitations of biological analyses. Here, she describes her methods of study and matters of reliability as they apply to metric information. Similarly, most of the 21 pages in the chapter reviewing the attribution of sex, and also the chapter on age at death, deal with methodological matters intended to reveal the limitations of skeletal reports that may not seem useful to general readers. Her own findings, as well as her summary of historical sources for old age in antiquity, “do not resolve the issue of longevity in the Roman world” (155). Lazer states that “life tables” may be problematical (157), but a simple listing of age at death and sex evaluations for each person identified would be all that most archaeologists would wish to know.

Having finessed the basic questions asked by archaeologists, Lazer next addresses matters of general health and lifestyle (ch. 8). Once again, theory, methodology, and findings from many other skeletal samples are interspersed with the results of her study. At Pompeii, there is some possibility of studying correlations between stature and social class. Lazer questions these theories without testing them. Instead, she digresses into a review of supposed indicators of health and then a long review of pathological findings, without statistical analysis. I found an 11-page exegesis of hyperostosis frontalis interna simply too much. While each aspect of any skeletal study may contribute to understanding how a population lived, anthropologists do not agree on which, if any, are more useful. The bottom line for almost all such studies is that “[l]ifestyle indicators are notoriously difficult to identify and interpret” (220). Lazer’s bravery in stating this at the end of her longest chapter is to be lauded.

Chapter 9, “The Population,” focuses on nonmetric cranial evidence to describe the people. Readers are again provided with descriptions of each feature being studied, the methods used, and data from other populations. As is invariably the case with any study of a collection of human skeletons, “the cranial metric results were inconclusive for the Pompeian sample” (245). Lazer then turns to “The Casts,” perhaps the most iconic aspect of the site of Pompeii. These casts were created from “the negative forms of human bodies” (247) within the volcanic ash that had hardened around them. Casts also have been made of two domestic animals as well as furniture, doors, and a variety of organic materials. The casts intensify the vivid picture of this volcanic tragedy and offer an unusual and impressive means by which the past can be reconstructed.

Lazer has undertaken a monumental task in attempting to resurrect Pompeii through direct study of the human skeletal remains. She has achieved the rare goal of completing the project and producing a volume that includes much more than a dry bone report. She has also achieved extraordinary success in bringing into focus the centuries of evolving studies of this single aspect of the Pompeian archaeological endeavor. Her recognition of the interplay between literature and supposedly scholarly work at Pompeii is a major contribution to the history and philosophy of science. Her forthright approach to the processes of physical anthropology can only be described as courageous. She does not hesitate to point out failings. For example, she pointedly debunks the “facial reconstruction” approach (115–16) so greatly appreciated by a naive public. I agree with her conclusion that this modern attempt to humanize skeletal studies at the expense of scientific integrity provides a conundrum that we must confront.

As an old-fashioned osteologist, I recognize that basic skeletal analyses cannot be made to seem exciting. Skeletal reports, including dozens of my own, commonly are relegated to appendices that are read only by a few people, such as Lazer, who are seeking comparative information to help make sense of their own studies. Lazer has achieved a unique contextualization of a human skeletal population by placing it into its own cultural setting while decoding the intellectual and scientific stories involved in the discovery, recovery, and analysis of the evidence. Her perceptive reviews of methods and of the varied approaches used by our colleagues in conducting similar studies are extremely valuable. Despite the sometimes uneven pace and flow of this volume, it is an important contribution. Lazer provides an honest and detailed study of the people from Pompeii who died in 79 C.E. in a format that can serve as a very useful introduction to our field.

Marshall Joseph Becker
Department of Anthropology
West Chester University
West Chester, Pennsylvania 19383

Book Review of Resurrecting Pompeii, by Estelle Lazer

Reviewed by Marshall Joseph Becker

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 1 (January 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1161.Becker

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