Engines of Our Ingenuity


by: Richard Armstrong

Today, the Pompeian paradox. The Honors College at the University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

You all know about Pompeii. It was a flourishing town on the Bay of Naples that was completely destroyed in a volcanic eruption in the year 79. It’s remarkably preserved, giving us a precious glimpse into the daily life of ancient times. But that’s a paradox, isn’t it? The unique form of the town’s destruction preserved it.

body cast lying on back

This paradox is literally embodied in the remains of the town’s victims. You can see them if you go to Pompeii—only you don’t really see them. These bodies are artifacts of a most unusual kind.

The eruption had been going on for over half a day before most of these people died. Volcanic ash and pumice stones filled the streets up to 2 and half meters. The victims were caught slogging around way above street level, atop all that volcanic debris. Perhaps they were looters. Perhaps they ran home for precious belongings or missing loved ones. But around 6:30am, a huge pyroclastic surge poured down the volcano and killed them all within seconds. Most died of asphyxiation or thermal shock, exposed to temperatures well over 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

a perfect body cast, capturing vivid details of their faces

The volcanic material that enveloped them was so fine that it made a perfect body cast, capturing vivid details of their faces, their clothing, even their teeth and fingers. Further debris buried them deep below the surface. But since they lay so far above the water table, no water disturbed their resting place over the centuries. In time, the tissues all decayed, leaving nothing but bones within the hollow in the volcanic tuff.

Excavators initially destroyed these hollows as they dug for artifacts. As early as the 18th century, they were aware of the eerie impressions left where once bodies had lain. But little was done to preserve them. Then in 1863 Giuseppe Fiorelli had the idea of pouring plaster of Paris into these hollows. The result was a plaster statue of sorts, preserving the body’s impression but also encasing the skeletal remains.

body cast lying face down

Suddenly, the world had a grim counter-point to the ideal classical statues unearthed in Greece and Italy. Instead of serene and transcendent marble figures, visitors were confronted with common people, some maimed or old, wearing everyday clothes—even trousers. What’s more, their postures captured the horror of their last seconds of life. These weren’t bodies composed for ritual burial. They were the remains of terrified bystanders caught in a cataclysm they could not comprehend. Instead of the classical figure conveying nobility and quiet grandeur, it now revealed an awful frailty and imperfection. These figures fail to transcend the catastrophe; in a sense, they are forever screaming.

And yet these body casts were as captivating to the public as any treasure. Even today, we approach the dusty cases and stare timidly, yet eagerly at these human artifacts. Across the centuries, they convey a dreadful intimacy: the intimacy of the very moment of death.

body cast with hands in prayer position

I’m Richard Armstrong, at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Dobbins, John J. and Pedar W. Foss, eds. 2007. The World of Pompeii. New York: Routledge.

Dwyer, Eugene. 2010. Pompeii’s Living Statues: Ancient Roman Lives Stolen from Death. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P.

Lazer, Estelle. 2007. “Victims of the Cataclysm.” In Dobbins and Foss 2007, 607-619.

Sigurdsson, Haraldur. 2007. “The Environmental and Geomorphological Context of the Volcano.” In Dobbins and Foss 2007, 43-62.

Sirgurdsson, Haraldur and Steven Carey. 2002. “The Eruption of Vesuvius in A. D. 79.” The Natural History of Pompeii, edited by Wilhelmina Feemster Jashemski and Frederick G. Meyer. Cambrige: Cambridge UP. 37-64.


They are all photographs by Richard Armstrong of body casts located around the site of Pompeii.

This episode was first aired on August 8, 2012

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.