Summary

Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii tells the story of the victims of Pompeii.
After Bodies from the Ash by James M DeemMt. Vesuvius erupted on August 24 and 25, AD 79,Pompeii lay buried until 12 feet of volcanic ash and debris for the next 1700 years. Some attempts were made to excavate the town, but no one was certain of its exact location. Finally, in the mid-1700s, the town was rediscovered. Along with the desired treasures (statues, marble, jewelry) that excavators sought for wealthy patrons, workers also uncovered many skeletons of people who could not escape. At first, these skeletons were placed in locations within the Pompeian ruins as curiosity objects. Later, under the direction of Giuseppe Fiorelli, the hollow space around some skeletons was used as a mold. Workers poured plaster of Paris into the cavity; when the outer shell of the mold was chipped away, the plaster body of a person remained—an imprint of that person’s last moment alive.
By studying these individuals and the possessions that they had with them, Fiorelli and later scientists attempted to piece together their stories. Bodies from the Ash describes what they have found and the stories they have told.

 

 

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. August 24 and 25, AD 79: The eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii

Chapter 2. Rediscovering Pompeii: The discovery of Pompeii and the search for treasures in the ruins

Chapter 3. The Plaster Bodies of Pompeii: The creation of the plaster bodies from hollow cavities found in the volcanic debris

Chapter 4. Lives from the Ash: Some of the stories archaeologists have told about human and animal remains found at Pompeii

Chapter 5. Herculaneum’s Fate: The very different result of the eruption on Herculaneum, a nearby city also destroyed by Vesuvius

Chapter 6. A Final Excavation: The newest plaster cast and the status of Pompeii today

 

 

Reviews

School Library Journal, starred review (December 2005)

"In A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted and within 24 hours, ash, pumice, and volcanic rubble had covered, and annihilated, the city of Pompeii. It was not until the 18th century that workers began to uncover the remains of this nearly forgotten, except in legend, city and its inhabitants. In this well-researched account, Deem retells the story of this devastating eruption, combining a lively text with photographs of the bones and artifacts that have been unearthed through the years. In 1863, an excavator discovered a fascinating way to study human remains. As bodies covered in hot ash and enveloped by volcanic material decayed, spaces were left around the skeletons. After the hollow areas were filled with plaster, the surrounding debris was chipped away, resulting in detailed plaster casts that preserved imprints of the people's dying moments, showing their facial expressions and body positions as well as their clothing and possessions. Deem explains how scientists have used these molds and other evidence to piece together the life styles and final moments of some of the victims, and conveys these heart-wrenching tales. Dramatic photographs of the casts capture the horror of this event and help readers to envision day-to-day life in this civilization. With incredibly engrossing images and narrative, this is a powerful and poignant piece of nonfiction."

Children's Literature  

"James Deem provides budding archeologists with this intriguing look at the lost town. The first chapter gives a bit of history and background of the town itself, while the rest of the book is devoted to looking at the town from an archeological standpoint. Chapter Two details how the city was eventually rediscovered and became one of the most famous archeological sites in the world. Chapter Three is entirely dedicated to describing how many of the bodies left imprints in the ash, imprints that one could use to create plaster casts of the victims. Chapter Four explains how these casts help historians re-create the last moments of the victims and even tell a bit about their lives. Chapter Five describes the lesser-known town of Herculaneum, also a victim of Vesuvius. The final chapter describes Pompeii in the modern world, from new techniques for creating casts to threats to the city. This detailed yet easily comprehensible text is accompanied by numerous color photographs. A must for any student researching a report on Pompeii."

The Center of Children's Literature (Carthage College)  

"An oversized, horizontal orientation, with many black and white photos (some from earlier eras in which curious tourists flocked to the city), recent full color photos, maps, and additional information presented in marginalia has resulted in an exemplary production. Wide margins set off the concentrated amount of information, including sequence details drawn from the writing of Younger Pliny, whose uncle died in the eruption. The mistaken idea that lava flow did the destruction is corrected in the detailed description of the deluge of ash and pumice with surges of superhot gasses, which exceeded 900 degrees, Fahrenheit. When excavations began in 1709, diggers discovered the deposits reached a depth of 12 feet. This is also a story of the changing nature of excavations and conservation of remains from earliest digging when sites were looted of valuables and many skeletal remains inadvertently destroyed. Giuseppe Fiorelli made the breakthrough that if plaster casts of the skeletons were made, rather than removing them, much more accurate information about time and location of death, could be available. The effects of the eruption on nearby Herculaneum are described: though wind conditions allowed many residents to escape, subsequent eruptions leveled the city, depositing up to 65 feet of volcanic deposits, which during the l980s revealed over 300 skeletal remains. The book closes with a perplexing note: even though Vesuvius remains a potential threat, over l million people live in its vicinity today- a disaster waiting to happen? The elegant production job is sure to engage many curious child readers in a time period and event few will know until they are lucky enough to discover this book."

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books(December, 2005) 

"Ever since the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii were re-exposed in the eighteenth century, spectators have been morbidly fascinated by the remains and traces of victims caught at the instant of death. Deem looks at the disaster itself (which he revisits in considerably grim detail), at archaeological practices at the sites over time, and at tourists' experiences of the sites. This book also examines the evidence scientists use to reconstruct the deadly timeline of the A.D. 79 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and to determine why some fleeing or trapped citizens left skeletal remains, while others left fossil-style depressions from which the now famous plaster casts were made. Plentiful illustrations, the majority in black and white, are sharply reproduced and utterly captivating. Deem concludes with a chapter on the present state of neglect at the excavation and the peril which artifacts face now that they are exposed to the elements. A bibliography and index are included."

Horn Book (November/December, 2005)

"Both the title and the many photographs of skeletons and plaster casts of dead Pompeians are sure to attract readers to this account of the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius in C.E. 79. Deem describes the earthquakes and eruptions that occurred over two days in late August, killing everyone who remained in the city and the surrounding region. He then chronicles the centuries of excavation efforts to uncover the city and its dead. Six chapters sketch a history of the various discoveries up to the present time. Deem doesn't provide much information about what Pompeii was like before the devastation, but the glimpses into several houses and locations (the House of the Golden Bracelet; the Garden of the Fugitives) and lives of individual residents are intriguing. ...this handsome introduction to the destruction of Pompeiiincludes a small map, a bibliography of adult sources, and an index."

Kirkus Reviews (October 15, 2005)  

"This fascinating exploration of the buried city of Pompeii begins with a recreation of the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius and ends with a snapshot of Pompeii today. In between are packed details of the various excavations that have led to our current knowledge of both the life and death of the city. Weaving in the contemporary account of Younger Pliny and the archaeological evidence, the narrative meticulously describes the effects of the various stages of the eruption on the inhabitants and the topography of Pompeii and its neighboring communities. The city's rediscovery receives equally careful coverage, a whole chapter covering Giuseppe Fiorelli's revolutionary technique of creating plaster casts of the victims from the cavities left by their bodies. Avoiding the opportunity to sensationalize, Deem's consistently respectful treatment places the humanity of the victims at the fore...."

2006 Orbis Pictus Outstanding Nonfiction Book 

"Under the looming shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, the residents of Pompeii became unexpected victims of an eruption that buried their city under twelve feet of volcanic ash on August 24–25, AD 79. With factual details gained from trips to the archeological site site, James Deem recaptures the annihilation of a prominent Italian city and chillingly reveals ongoing archeological discoveries through meticulous excavations of the past 250 years. Early attempts to reveal the mysteries of Pompeii focused on unearthing treasures and human skeletons. However, the process of forming plaster mummies, inspired by Giuseppe Fiorelli in 1863, captured the last living moment of those who died by suffocation. Through these plaster artifacts, Deem pieces together stories of individuals, families, households, and the lifestyle of this city of the Roman Empire. Outstanding archival photographs of human plaster casts and preserved homes and gardens accompany the reader on a visual and textual journey through Pompeii.An index, bibliography, informational inserts, and captions further document the power of the sleeping giant that still threatens one million residents today."

National Science Teachers Association and the Children's Book Council, Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students K-12  

"This attractive...volume offers a deeper than usual coverage of the destruction of Pompeii by a volcano in the first century A.D. ...[L]etters from a Roman historian provide actual accounts of the timeline and the stages of the eruption, making this book appropriate as a supplement to Earth science content related to volcanism.... The book is ideal for the development of interdisciplinary thematic units, blending science, social studies, and geography in middle school.... A bibliography and index support further research."

Illinois Library Association Conference, Center for Children's Books (61 Books in 60 Minutes)

"This is an impressively thorough overview of the disastrous event itself (visited in grim detail) as well as archaeological practices at the sites over time, tourists' experiences of the sites, and the evidence scientists use to reconstruct the deadly timeline of the 79 A.D. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius."

School Library Journal, Nonfiction Booktalker (March 2006)

"James M. Deem’s Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii (Houghton) is loaded with pictures of Pompeiian townsfolk caught at the moment of their deaths. On the morning of August 27, AD 79, a small cloud emanating from Mount Vesuvius formed over the Roman town of Pompeii. The residents weren’t worried until the cloud began to release ash and stones. The fallout continued at a rate of five to six inches per hour. By midnight, all the first floor buildings and windows were blocked with falling volcanic matter. Fires burned everywhere. Super-hot, super-fast gases roared down the mountainside. They did not reach Pompeii itself, but by 7:30 in the morning, it was over. Everyone who had not already escaped was killed, buried in various kinds of material from the volcano. Those bodies are not real mummies, but plaster images. In the 1700s diggers picked through the rubble of Pompeii. Their methods were not remotely scientific, and they stole most of the artifacts they found, but along with the treasures they discovered skeletons. In time, they found that they could fill the holes around the skeletons with plaster and create almost perfect images of what the residents of Pompeii looked like as they were dying. Deem shows us these unfortunate Romans, and gives us a little frisson of horror as we gaze in fascination at these ancient bodies." 

The Center for Children's Books, Around the World in 40 Books (December, 2006) 

"Pompeii , one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire , was destroyed within twenty-four hours on August 24, AD 79 . Centuries later archaeological excavations unearthed clues to the dwellers lives which lay buried under layers of volcanic rubble. Buildings, jewelry, treasures, and bodies were uncovered. Pictures of the excavations and maps of the area provide fascinating detail for readers."

School Library Journal, Curriculum Connections (November 2007)

"Kids...will be mesmerized by James M. Deem’s Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii. Gripping, vividly written chapters provide a thorough recounting of the eruption; a summary of the city’s rediscovery by archeologists centuries later; descriptions of chillingly lifelike plaster casts taken of Vesuvius’s victims; heart-wrenching stories about people’s last moments, based on information gleaned from their remains; and events in nearby Herculaneum. Well-chosen, graphic photos and reproductions complete this riveting resource. "

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "Disasters!: An Extreme Dozen" (November 2007)

"Grim and gripping images highlight this overview of one of the most famous historical disasters and its subsequent archeological fate."

 

Honors

Best Books for Young Adults 2006 (ALA)

School Library Journal Best Children’s Books of 2005

2006 Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies (National Council for the Social Studies and the Children's Book Council)

2006 Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students K-12 (National Science Teachers Association and the Children's Book Council)

2006 CCBC Choices (Cooperative Children's Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

2006 Orbis Pictus Recommended Book (NCTE)

Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) Nonfiction Honor List 2005

Bank Street College Best of the Best (Outstanding Books of 1997 to 2008)

 

 

School Visits

James M Deem regularly visits schools and libraries in the United States and around the world to speak about his experiences researching and writing Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii. His presentation includes many rare images that he discovered in the photographic archive at Pompeii. He says:

When speaking about Pompeii, I discuss what life was like in Pompeii before the famous eruption of AD 79. Then I describe the eruption of Vesuvius, its effect on the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and how and why Pompeii remained buried for 1700 years. I show some of the objects that were found there once Pompeii was rediscovered. Finally, I describe how the plaster casts were made and why they are so important. Throughout my presentation, I discuss some of the stories archaeologists have told (and imagined) about the casts and why (using critical thinking skills) they should often be questioned, if not completely discounted.

More information about James M Deem's school and library visits.

Presenting to students at the Birmingham (AL) Public Library

 

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