Life and death in Pompeii

An exhibit at Pompeii: Life In A Roman Town 79CE, an exhibition at the National Museum, showcasing the cast of a crouching man when he died.

The story of Pompeii, how an ancient Roman city perished in a volcanic eruption about 2,000 years ago, has captured the imagination of many, resulting in a multitude of films, TV series and novels around the world.

But what could possibly tell the tragic tale more vividly than the very relics excavated from beneath a thick layer of volcanic ash?

In a rare treat for South Koreans, the National Museum of Korea has brought in about 300 artifacts from Italy to reenact the life and death of residents in the ill-fated cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum at the base of Mount Vesuvius near modern-day Naples.

The exhibit takes visitors back in time to the late summer of A.D. 79 when Pompeii was still a vibrant city, luring the elites of Rome with its opulent lifestyle, beautiful weather and scenery.

A large part of the exhibition is dedicated to reenacting the daily life of people in Pompeii.

One section recreates the interior of a mansion with an atrium, wall frescoes and marble statues and rooms decorated with furniture pieces, mosaics and paintings.

Another section is dedicated to sexually explicit paintings, sculptures and other relics, as Pompeii was famous for its many brothels. A sign on the wall says it is inappropriate for visitors under the age of 15.

"The wall frescos are important pieces in this exhibition, as they reveal the credible level of artistry in Pompeii," explained Gu Moon-gyoung, a curator at the museum. "It's so beautiful and the colors are still so vivid. It's hard to believe that they were made nearly 2,000 years ago."

The once-thriving civilization of Pompeii is, in fact, awe-inspiring. The exquisite jewelry, sculptures and paintings on view look like they could be from the 18th century.

But what's most interesting to visitors is no doubt the body casts of those who died on Aug. 24, A.D. 79, the presumed date of the disastrous eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

In a dramatic closing, the exhibition contrasts the horrendous day of death to the cultured and lavish lifestyles of Pompeiians shown before.

A CGI film offers visitors a glimpse into the terror of the final hours. Floors begin to shake and walls rumble, as the mountain roars. Day turns into night, after a dark cloud shoots into the air. Rocks and mud rain from the sky. Soon enough, death falls upon everyone, with a tidal wave of superheated ash sweeping the city.

Several bodycasts are on view, vividly showing the horror and pain that the Pompeiians must have felt.

A crouching man is covering his mouth with both hands. A woman, lying her face down, tries to shield her face with clothes. A dog twists its body in pain.

In another presentation of death, there are skeletons of 32 adults, youths, children and babies found in an arch-type arcade near the beach of Herculaneum.

"Herculaneum, because it was located on the other side of the mountain, was struck in a different way. People were incinerated instantly by the pyroclastic surge which exceeded 400 degrees Celsius," Gu said. "Only skeletons were left."

"Pompeii: The Culture of the Ancient Roman City" continues through April 5 at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul and will move to Ulsan for another two-month run.

Admission to the Seoul exhibition is 13,000 won for adults. The museum is closed on Mondays. For more information, visit