Ancient history school: what's new with the old?

Dr Estelle Lazer in Pompeii

Dr Estelle Lazer in Pompeii

I have taught a unit on Pompeii and Herculaneum for many years. Sometimes, to keep me interested and engaged, I change the focus. We might look at leisure, architecture, politics or religion. One thing I never change is looking at the role contemporary archaeologists play in studying the material culture. Dr Estelle Lazer is one of my case studies. An Australian archaeologist, Lazer has done some amazing work with the skeletons of Pompeii. Her diligence, compassion and care for these people has revealed a lot of information about their health, diet, disease and lifestyle. Dr Lazer recently spoke to Academy Travel about her work.

An honorary research fellow at the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney, Lazer’s work initially focused on the piles of skeletons found at Pompeii. She sorted the bones and was able to provide an amazing snapshot of who was living in Pompeii at the time. This brought an entirely new ‘human’ elements to the site as these bones could now tell stories about real people. Since then, Dr Lazer has incorporated a range of medical imagery technology to analyse the famous plaster casts. These casts were made by Guiseppe Fiorelli, director of the site from 1863-1875, when trying to determine the nature of the air pockets in the ground. The casts have become the face of Pompeii and have fascinated people for centuries.

Today, Lazer is using medical imagining technology to further analyse the casts. She comments:

In theory, the plaster casts of the victims encapsulate entire skeletons. This indicated that there was the potential to significantly increase our knowledge of the victims as making diagnoses from complete skeletons is far more reliable than from individual skeletal elements...It is non-invasive, which means that we can do high-level research without damaging the casts.

The technology allows Lazer to take a series of X ray slices that are then stitched together to form a 3D image of the inside and outside of the cast. This allows archaeologists to analyse previous restoration efforts. Interestingly, the team has discovered that there was a lot of ‘manufacturing’ of casts in the 19th and early 20th C, probably for the enjoyment of tourists. About one particular famous cast, Lazer comments:

In the case of the dog, which was found in the so-called house of Orpheus in 1874, all the bones were removed prior to casting and much metal was introduced. Examination of the plaster tells us that it was constructed out of six or seven different pieces.

From a classroom teaching point of view, this interview with Lazer is an excellent resource. She goes into much detail about the type of technology she uses and some of the challenges she has had to overcome to adapt the technology for use on the casts. For budding forensics scientists in your ancient history classroom, this is gold! It also highlights the important role that STEM plays in archaeology and ancient history.

The article provides a number of resources that can be incorporated into the classroom:

  • drone footage of Pompeii that shows how the drones are used and the type of footage the drones capture. This gives students the opportunity to see Pompeii up close and analyse the state of disrepair and collapse of particular regions. It is clear how the vegetation is having an adverse effect on the buildings and the damage done by volumes of visitors.

  • Lazer also refers to her website, The Pompeii Cast Project. The team uses a blog to keep visitors up tp date with recent work. This is where students can interact with the team and access recent data.

  • The resources page of the website provides links to interviews, documentaries and podcasts. All of this can be used in the classroom in a range of ways to suit all learning types. It is priceless for assignment research.

Other suggestions for your classroom:

I look forward to hearing about your successful Pompeii lessons.

Go forth and conquer!

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