Pompeii and P6: Let’s Talk Volcanoes!

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Let’s set the scene, Pompeii. An almost 2000 year old city once buried under ash and lava and brought back to the modern day by archaeologists. An interesting subject for anyone, surely; with all the buildings, plaster casts, friezes and all set beneath the shadow of one of the most famous volcanoes of them all – Vesuvius, it’s hard to see why anyone wouldn’t want to learn about this place. For a small P6 class in Hollybank primary school in Newtownabbey, learning about Pompeii was an exciting new chapter in their World Around Us topic focusing on volcanoes.

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First off, what do we already know about Pompeii? The P6s eagerly stick their hands in the air and tell me things like “it was buried when Vesuvius erupted”, “the people who lived there owned slaves” and “it was a Roman city”. From the children’s answers I was able to make a pretty detailed mind map and saw that they had a good interest in the subject already.

We first think about where Pompeii is, what it actually was and how it was found. The P6s very much enjoyed discussing what an archaeologist was and how they played a part in uncovering the ancient city. The lesson then moves to learning about some key places in Pompeii – the Amphitheatre being our first stop. Looking at a frieze from a Pompeian villa, the class hear of a riot between the Pompeians and Nucerians that arose during a gladiatorial show as told by the Roman historian Tacitus, causing games in the city to be banned for 10 whole years! The class were fascinated to learn that the Pompeian amphitheatre, at its ripe old age of 2088 years old held over twice the amount our own SSE Arena can – about 20,000 people! Moving on to the forum, the P6s get to compare the forum to what we have today (relevant in the Northern Irish National Curriculum!), we have law courts, government buildings and religious buildings even today and so did the Romans…but these were all nicely positioned in the one place.

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The House of the Faun created buzz in the P6 classroom as they all eagerly noticed that the Faun statue in the impluvium looks a lot like Mr Tumnus from the Chronicles of Narnia. “He does a bit, doesn’t he?” I say to them. This gave me the opportunity to tell the class a bit about Satyrs (as the statue is of a Faun which the Romans linked to Satyrs from Greek Drama). I’ve always found that by comparing the Ancient world to things that children know from their own lives helps make the subject come more alive, and in turn helps them to understand a bit more about the civilisations of long ago.

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The graffiti of Pompeii generated some very interesting discussion from the pupils. We do indeed still have graffiti today, but graffiti artists probably use spray cans not paint and the artistic styles vary greatly from the writings in Pompeii. Nevertheless, the class agreed that graffiti of any sort was not something that we should do (although they did enjoy hearing some Latin graffiti read aloud).

Looking at the plaster casts of the Pompeians received mixed reactions; empathy for the lives that were lost, but also great intrigue. Who were these people? Were they in pain when they died? How did the archaeologists know that by pouring plaster in these holes they would find what they did?

A lot of questions were raised at this point, proving to me that they were engaged with the topic and as well, that they wanted to learn so much more than I was able to tell them in the time frame. It is perhaps one of the more morbid sights in Pompeii, but nevertheless it made what happen in 79AD in Pompeii all the more real for the Hollybank pupils.

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Then comes the really fun part: looking at the eruption itself. I decided to take two slants to this, to give them the broadest outlook of the incident itself – a human perspective and a geological one. We first look at the letters of Pliny the Younger and his recount of the eruption of Vesuvius to his friend and historian, Tacitus.

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We hear of how his uncle, Pliny the Elder, takes his ship and heads across the bay of Naples to Pompeii whilst feeling the earth shaking and looking at a thick, black, ashen sky covering the horizon as the sea pulled back from the shore (perhaps suggesting a tsunami was caused). A bit of historical enquiry was launched by the pupils (again, in the curriculum!) because we wondered, is Pliny’s recount a reliable source or not? It’s the only source of its kind that we have detailing so many events of the eruption, it’s hard not to trust! Pliny’s in depth retelling of the kind of eruption that took place lets us have a clearer view of what happened that day, especially from a geological perspective. In fact, Pliny’s description was so good that we were able to name an eruption after him: a Plinian eruption. But, to what extent can we really believe it? Pliny is writing in hindsight of course, his memory may not have been perfect of the day, especially after about 25 years. As well, he tells Tacitus of things that only his uncle could have seen (as Pliny the Younger didn’t actually go on the ship to help himself) and his uncle sadly did not make it back across the bay alive. Can we really trust him?

What we can trust however is the geological side of things – what we know must have happened during the eruption; rocks and ash rushing into the air shaped like a mushroom and spreading off in branches (as a Plinian eruption does), two eruptions in the space of 48 hours and lava rushing down the sides of the mountain.

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I left a bit of time at the end for a question and answer session. Letting children ask their own questions encourages freedom of thought and promotes natural curiosity. The P6 teacher, Mrs Hannah Campfield actually set the children homework to think of 5 questions to ask me after the lesson. This proved to be really effective for the children as I had to know my stuff and meant they could begin to think like ancient historians before the lesson had even begun. The P6s asked me questions such as…

How hot is lava?

How fast does lava travel?

Did the Romans have slaves and did they think it was okay to have slaves?

Did it make them bad people because they had slaves?

Was it ok for them to have gladiator fights?

I was so impressed by the thinking shown by the children’s questions and it proved how engaged they were with the topic and how they wanted to understand so much more about Pompeii and its people.

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Teaching Primary school children is always a joy. Teaching Classics to this age group never ceases to show me how relevant (to 21st century life/ the Northern Irish National Curriculum!) and fun it can be when brought into the classroom. Children seem to have a natural curiosity for the Romans, their culture, their beliefs, history and language and I do hope I can continue to promote Classics in primary schools in the future. I and CANI would like to thank Hollybank Primary school, principal Ms Lynsey Brett and Mrs Hannah Campfield for allowing us into their school to teach their pupils all about Pompeii.

Amber Taylor

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