I recently visited an exhibition of artifacts from Pompeii, the Roman city buried by the ash and lava of Mt. Vesuvius when it erupted in 79 A.D.
"It grew dark, not the darkness of a cloudy or moonless night, but of a closed room when the light goes out," wrote Pliny the Younger, who managed to escape from a nearby town. "There resounded the moans of women, the cries of children, the shouts of men. Some called for their fathers or mothers, others for their children, others for their wives. They tried to find each other by voice. Some deplored their fate, others the fate of their loved ones. Some, too afraid to go on, pleaded for a fast death. Many raised their hands toward the gods. But many more believed that there were no gods anywhere and that night would be eternal, the final night of the world."
The exhibition included a few of the plaster forms of people who had been trapped beneath the falling ash. Their bodies eventually wasted away, creating a mold. Archaeologists probed for these as they uncovered the city 18 centuries later, and when they found one, they would pour down plaster to recreate the shape left behind, portraits of desperation.
One of the forms, which I photographed, shows a man sitting on the ground, holding his tunic up to his face.
shadow from Pompeii
in three solid dimensions
still struggles to breathe