August 24, 79 AD, started out like any other day in the thriving Roman town of Pompeii, with citizens socializing at the public baths, watching gladiator contests, preparing meals and going to school. The popular resort town was located in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, which hadn't erupted in hundreds of years.
A series of small earthquakes in the last few days may have caused some uneasiness, however. Only seventeen years earlier, a big earthquake had caused massive damage, which the citizens of Pompeii were still trying to repair. At the time, the correlation between earthquakes and volcanic activity was unknown; but the longer a volcano is silent, the bigger the explosion when it finally does erupt.
At about 1:00 in the afternoon, the sea became choppy, birds stopped singing and the town dogs were howling. Then there was a huge blast, and a plume of fire started to pour out of the cone of Mt. Vesuvius. By 3:00, volcanic rocks had begun to fall on the city, creating a dark cloud that turned day into night. The townspeople prayed to the Roman gods and attempted to flee, but the darkness and debris made escape nearly impossible. Then the lava came -- at first slow and not very hot, but suddenly boiling hot and traveling at 50 miles per hour. Around 2000 Pompeiians perished in the disaster. (For a firsthand account of events, read Pliny the Younger's account of his uncle's brave attempt to rescue victims.)
For more than 1500 years, Pompeii was forgotten. It was only in 1763 that an inscription was discovered that identified the ruins as the lost town. Archeologists have been working since then to uncover the city that was frozen in time; they have discovered household objects, frescoes, graffiti, seeds of garden flowers, and even a rake. The bodies of people who were trapped in the eruption eventually decayed, leaving a space inside the hardened ash. By pouring plaster in the shapes, archeologists have recreated statues of some of the people and animals of Pompeii.
The Denver Museum of Nature and Science will have "A Day in Pompeii" on exhibit September 14 through January 13, 2013 - one of only four U.S. cities to host this touching and riveting peek of life under the ashes of the doomed city. Visitors will view over 250 artifacts, including household objects, furniture, jewelry, wall-sized frescoes and casts of bodies. The exhibit also features a chilling computer-generated film showing a simulation of the last hours of Pompeii.
Pompeii: Buried Alive, a 45-minute documentary narrated by Leonard Nimoy