Uncovering Pompeii:

Examining Evidence

 

 

Michael M. Yell

The lesson plan presented here appears in William W. Wilen, ed., Favorite Lesson Plans: Powerful Standards-Based Activities (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 2000).

 

Grade Level/Subject:

Middle Schoo#151;World Cultures

 

NCSS Thematic Strand: 2 Time, Continuity, and Change

a. demonstrate an understanding that different scholars may describe the same event or situation in different ways but must provide reasons or evidence for their views (Middle Grades)

d. identify and use processes important to reconstructing and reinterpreting the past, such as using a variety of sources; providing, validating, and weighing evidence for claims; checking credibility of sources; and searching for causality (Middle Grades)

c. compare and contrast different stories or accounts about past events, people, places, or situations, identifying how they contribute to our understanding of the past (Early Grades)

 

Key Features of Powerful Teaching and Learning

Meaningful – students engage in in-depth study of a past civilization using the inquiry process that has life application.

Integrative – students study interdisciplinary science and social science perspectives from the areas of geology, history, and archaeology. Students’ papers are evaluated by teachers in history and language arts.

Challenging – the basis for the lesson is the inquiry method, which is initiated by a discrepant event. Students analyze a “problem” in a logical and systematic way as guided by the teacher. Students also interact throughout the lesson and are involved in cooperative group work.

Active — students are actively involved in the construction of knowledge as a result of the discovery nature of inquiry and through interactive discussions with the teacher and fellow students.

 

Purpose/Rationale

The ancient Roman city of Pompeii continues to fascinate us today. Pompeii was destroyed by the volcano Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79. Ironically, the massive volcanic explosion also preserved Pompeii for the archaeologists and historians of today and of the future. In addition to being a fascinating story, Pompeii provides an archaeological snapshot of a Roman city and the people who lived in it.

In this lesson, students examine, think about, and interact regarding viewpoints of various disciplines— the archaeological, the geologic, and the historical. Throughout this lesson, students are in different groupings to facilitate instruction. Initially, they work in groups of three in order to interact with and discuss the selected materials from the above disciplines. Later in the lesson, students work individually to write a creative yet factual historical essay on “Uncovering Pompeii.” The lesson concludes with a class discussion of Pompeii and life in a Roman city.

This lesson uses a strategy called the “interactive presentation” in dealing with this content. This teaching strategy has five distinct phases that blend together to form the whole lesson.1 The phases are (1) discrepant event inquiry, (2) discussion/presentation, (3) cooperative learning activity, (4) writing for understanding activity, and (5) whole-class discussion and review.

 

Objectives

Students will:

> experience how the various social science disciplines can be integrated to develop a clear understanding of a historical event

> analyze and synthesize statements in groups and individually from an archaeological, historical, and geologic perspective in developing, and explaining, their understanding of the destruction of Pompeii and of life in an ancient Roman city

 

Time Allotment

Three to four class periods.

 

Resources Needed

> video—Rome: The Ultimate Empire, from the Time-Life video series “Lost Civilizations.”2

> Pompeii Factsheets (one of the main sources I used in developing these was Pompeii: The Vanished City from Time-Life Books).3

 

Procedure

1. Discrepant Event Inquiry

The lesson begins with a discrepant event inquiry.4 The inquiry is followed by discussion and finally a K-W-L. Developed by Donna Ogle, K-W-L is an acronym for the process that students go through during the course of a learning experience. The “K” stands for “what I Know” and is discussed and recorded early in the lesson in order to get at prior knowledge; “W” is “what I Want to know” and involves discussing/listing questions of interest to students prior to the learning experience; and “L” is “what I Learned,” and is completed at the closure point in the lesson.5

This is the inquiry I have developed to begin the lesson on Pompeii:

You and a friend are walking through a quaint old city. The summer sun warms the rooftops of the old homes. Listening to birds singing and the curious voices of small children and their parents, you notice a mansion a block or so to your left. Walking over to the large home, you see an outdoor patio with a table set for dinner. Next to the patio is a doghouse. A woman outside mopping the patio looks up and smiles at you.

As you enter the business district, you remark to your friend how small the stores are, and how close they are to one another. While you are talking, you notice a bakery to your left. An oven door is open, and you see several loaves of bread ready to be taken out. Just then, a small girl and her father pass in front of you. The girl looks up to her father and asks why nobody is at home or at work. The father looks down at her, smiles, and says, “Well, no one lives in this city.”

The problem that students must figure out is stated thus: “You have traveled through this city, seen some of its homes and businesses with evidence of life all around you, and yet no one lives in it. How is this possible?”

After the problem statement is given, students begin to question the teacher in an attempt to figure out the puzzle, but they can only ask questions that can be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” For instance, they might begin by asking, “Is the city actually a Hollywood set?” (the answer would be “no”) or “Is this a real city?” (the answer would be “yes”). Questions build upon questions, and answers become further questions as the inquiry moves along. Stop the students from time to time to have them discuss and hypothesize in their small groups. From this point, it is not difficult for them to realize that the characters in the short story were walking through a city that was abandoned or destroyed. One possible answer to this inquiry, and the one that I bring up, is that “your friend, yourself, and the other people are tourists and the city is Pompeii—an uninhabited city in Italy that was destroyed by the volcano Vesuvius almost 2000 years ago.”

Following the completion of the inquiry, we discuss the process of discovering what happened in Pompeii. At this point, we begin recording in notebooks what we are beginning to learn about Pompeii. The format that I often use as we are going through the interactive presentation is the previously mentioned K-W-L. We begin with the “K” as students begin listing what they know, or think they know, about Pompeii. While students are in groups, they are asked to make a group list using a method known as “cooperative structure roundtable.” In roundtable, a sheet of paper is passed around the group as members discuss and make note of what they believe they know about Pompeii.6 We discuss their prior knowledge.

We have done the inquiry and discussed/written on students’ prior knowledge and what they would like to learn. We move to the second part, which is to have a quick presentation focusing on developing interest and further questions regarding the subject matter.

 

2. Discussion/Presentation

The second part of the interactive presentation is a short media presentation/mini-lecture on the topic. The purpose is to have the students view a short segment of a video that presents some information on the topic (in this case Pompeii), or perhaps a slide that is augmented with some verbal information. This presents students with a visual cue that whets their appetites to see and to learn more about the subject.

After reviewing a number of different media presentations on Pompeii, I have selected a segment of the Time-Life video Rome: The Ultimate Empire (from the “Lost Civilizations” series).7 The segment that I show students lasts about five minutes and is the section on Pompeii.

This video segment begins with narration: “One ancient city in Southern Italy epitomized the commerce, prosperity, and vitality enjoyed at the heart of empire. [The video shows people in tunics walking in a dimly street at night.] Its streets were alive into the night. Twenty thousand Romans lived here.” The video segment goes on to show a family beginning to eat dinner when Vesuvius explodes. Following a moving reenactment of a Pompeian family caught in the explosion, this segment of the video then goes on to show ancient frescos from Pompeii and ruins of the city, and the narrator explains that through the efforts of archaeologists, life in Pompeii is being revealed. The video moves on to show old pictures of an archaeological dig, and explains: “In 1860, Giuseppe Fiorelli made the first systematic excavation of Pompeii. On a hunch, Fiorelli poured plaster into cavities he suspected were made by human remains. From the earthen molds the victims emerged.” Viewers next witness scenes of the plaster casts of the dead on a street in Pompeii with a sad violin accompaniment. As the camera pans up a hardened ash hill, we hear, “This gang of ancient construction workers struggled to stay on top only to be struck down by a shockwave of volcanic gas.” At this point, I stop the video and we work through the “W” section of the K-W-L, as we discuss and list questions students would like to know about Pompeii.

From this introduction, we move to the next section of the interactive presentation: the cooperative discussion group. Prior to this activity, two quotes from the video are mentioned to students: “Ironically, Vesuvius preserved as well as destroyed Pompeii,” and “a surprising mosaic of life is revealed.” Students are told to keep the two statements in mind as they look at the accounts of Pompeii by an archaeologist, an eyewitness, and a geologist.

3. Cooperative Learning Activity

The third part of the interactive presentation is the use of cooperative learning.8 In the group work, students examine evidence from primary and secondary sources that helps them form their own answers to questions.

Each group is given a folder with three information sheets. The first information sheet contains a geological account of the explosion, the second, a discussion of an archaeological perspective on Pompeii, and the third, quotations from the letters of Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness to the explosion (this primary source represents the historical view). The information sheets contain questions that ask students to think about and discuss their content. Each information sheet also contains a picture that relates to the content. These sheets are meant to contain enough information that, through synthesis, students can put together a clear picture of what life was like in Pompeii, the explosion, and how that explosion destroyed and yet preserved Pompeii.

The cooperative groups of three begin by dividing the information sheets among the group members. Each student takes the information sheet that he or she received, scans it, and then passes it to the left. This is done quickly until each student has seen each information sheet. Students are then given directions so that they can carefully go over one information sheet at a time, read it, examine the accompanying picture, and discuss the questions together. After they have developed their ideas about the reading and the discussion questions, students put the ideas in their notebooks (and thus begin to work on the “L” part of the K-W-L—what they are learning). Using the “task-group share group” strategy, students share their ideas with other groups.9 In this strategy, one student from each group will rotate among the other groups at intervals of a few minutes. We begin by having one group member move to the group on the right, discuss what his or her previous group thought, and then move on to the next group. When this activity is complete, all students will be back in their original group with ideas from every other group in the room. This activity is followed by a classroom discussion that deals with the historical, archaeological, and geological perspectives on Pompeii.

 

4. Writing for Understanding

The fourth phase of the interactive presentation is a writing for understanding activity.10 This is an individual assignment in which students write creatively about the uncovering of Pompeii. In this lesson, students are given a number of different possibilities for their writing assignment. They may, for example, write a historian’s guide to Pompeii for visitors or assume the role of a student archaeologist and write an article for the local paper.

 

5. Whole-Class Discussion and Review

The fifth and final phase of the interactive presentation is the whole-class discussion/review. Based on ideas contained within the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute’s History Alive! and interactive slide lecture,11 and using a number of Merrill Harmin’s techniques to inspire active learning,12 this final section seeks to synthesize the ideas of this lesson via discussion and writing.

Media images are used to illustrate and elicit discussion over the main ideas presented in the lesson. In this case, I once again use the Time-Life video Rome: The Ultimate Empire. As with the phase just prior to the cooperative activity, the section of that video on Pompeii is used. It is only five minutes, and with the knowledge and understanding that students have gained, the segment becomes more meaningful, more moving, and a prompt for further discussion.

The discussion is centered on the two statements that students were told to watch for: that Vesuvius both destroyed and preserved Pompeii, and that a surprising mosaic of life was revealed by archaeologists. As further prompts to discussion, several slides are used. The first shows an artist’s conception of Roman citizens in the market place, and the second shows the volcanic eruption and people fleeing. The third shows some of the human plaster of Paris molds. When each slide is shown students are asked to do a “sharing pairs” activity in order to discuss what is happening in the slide.13 Students then discuss and, at times, role play the people in the slides.14 For example, volunteer students will stand in front of the slide of people walking through the streets of Pompeii and answer questions, from other students and myself, as if they were those people in the slide. When the slide is projected showing the human casts, several students will go up to the slide and assume the role of archaeologists. Questions will be asked about the uncovering of Pompeii and these bodies. Discussion revolves around the slide images and the students’ reactions to them.

We complete the lesson with students taking notes by responding in writing to several prompts given to them in class.15 The prompts would include finishing the following sentence stems:
“I learned that …” and “I still wonder … .” The writing serves both as notes in their notebooks and a summary of their learning completing the K-W-L cycle.

 

Assessment

Students write an essay that can be based on a variety of roles or possibilities. There are a number of criteria that the essay must meet regardless of the role assumed. The essay must contain their ideas regarding (1) what Pompeii was like prior to the explosion, (2) the explosion and its effects, and (3) the archaeological evidence left behind. Student opportunities to develop their ideas come primarily from the cooperative learning activity and necessitate synthesizing the geological, archaeological, and eye-witness discussions.

Prior to beginning their first drafts, students are presented with an assessment rubric (see the box on page 67). The rubric is discussed in class. After working through a couple of drafts, and reading in pairs, students move to the computer lab to create the final versions of their essays. In addition to their writing, students are to incorporate sketches, diagrams, maps, and/or other visuals. This writing assignment is coordinated with the language arts teacher. Thus, the writing that they do in social studies must meet criteria that they have in language arts, such as spelling, topic sentences, and structure.

 

Conclusion

In the four days of learning and thinking about Pompeii, students are involved in an in-depth examination of the life, death, and resurrection of Pompeii using the processes of inquiry, cooperative learning, and writing for understanding. In doing so, students analyze and synthesize information from a geological perspective, an archaeological perspective, and a historical perspective (an eyewitness account). The format of the lesson, the interactive presentation, and the materials used attempt to help students build upon the process of inquiry, socially construct their own understanding of Pompeii, and develop a creative essay demonstrating their new understanding.

Nearly 2000 years ago, a tragedy of cataclysmic proportions occurred in Pompeii. In attempting to understand the humanity and dimensions of that tragedy, students can come to a deeper and more personal understanding of life in the ancient world. G

 

 

Notes

1. Michael M. Yell, “The Time Before History: Thinking Like an Archaeologist,” Social Education 62, no. 1 (January 1998): 27-31.

2. “Lost Civilizations,” Rome: The Ultimate Empire video (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Video and Television, 1995).

3. Dale M. Brown, ed., Pompeii: The Vanished City (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1993).

4. B. Joyce, M. Weil, and B. Showers, Models of Teaching (Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1994); W. Bruce and J. Bruce, Teaching Social Studies with Discrepant Event Inquiry (Annapolis, MD: Alpha Publishing Co., 1992).

5. K-W-L is discussed in many sources, including R. Marzano, D. Pickering, R. Brandt, et al., Teacher’s Manual: Dimensions of Learning (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1992); and Merrill Harmin, Strategies to Inspire Active Learning (Edwardsville, IL: Inspiring Strategies Institute, 1996).

6. S. Kagan, Cooperative Learning (San Clemente, CA: Kagan Cooperative Learning, 1995).

7. “Lost Civilizations,” Rome: The Ultimate Empire video. I have found it best to use videotapes in small segments with opportunities for interactions rather than showing them in their entirety. For example, I use a great deal of this video but spread it out through several lessons.

8. Kagan, B. Bower, J. Lobdell, and L. Swenson, History Alive! Engaging All Learners in the Diverse Classroom (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1994).

9. Harmin.

10. Bower, Lobdell, and Swenson.

11. Ibid.

12. Harmin.

13. Ibid.

14. See the interactive slide lecture discussion in Bower, Lobdell, and Swenson, for a further explanation of role playing to the images in slides.

15. See the discussion of outcome statements in Harmin.

 

Michael M. Yell teaches middle school social studies at Hudson Middle School, Hudson, Wisconsin.

 

 

Rubric for Pompeii Essay

 

5. Highly Proficient

 

4. Proficient

 

 

3. Partially Proficient

 

2. Minimally Proficient

 

0. Unacceptable/Redo

 

 

Factsheet 1: The Geological View

 

In 79 AD, Pompeii was destroyed and, ironically, preserved by the massive explosion of the volcano Vesuvius. For several years before that explosion, there had been signals from Mt. Vesuvius that today we would know indicated a possible eruption. In 62 AD, a great earthquake destroyed many buildings in Pompeii. The earthquake was the result of magma pressure (magma is rock melted by the rubbing together of tectonic plates—the giant slabs of rock that the crust of the earth is divided into). Having no idea that the earthquake was a signal of future danger, the people went about rebuilding their city.

By the year 79 AD, there were other disturbing signs. Wells and springs were drying up. This was caused by the heat of the magma turning the ground water to steam. In early August, a series of small earthquakes were felt throughout Pompeii as pressure built. In the early morning of August 24, a series of steam explosions burst through the floor of the crater at the top of Mt. Vesuvius. The crater is a plug of hardened lava that seals the “throat” of a volcano.

Then, in the early afternoon, a tremendous blast blew off the top of the mountain. Vesuvius became a giant cannon with its muzzle turned up toward the sky. Tons of molten rock shot roughly fifteen miles into the sky at perhaps twice the speed of sound. The ash and small rock particles blew upward, eventually losing momentum and flattening out into a great black cloud. The winds were blowing in the direction of Pompeii.

By mid-afternoon, a cloud of ash had made the day as dark as night. From this black sky came a downpour of rocks and ash. The seemingly endless snow of ash and stones fell at the rate of about six inches every hour. By midnight, the ash was over six feet deep (by the time the explosion was over, Pompeii was buried in about twenty feet of ash). Those who had not been crushed to death, suffocated, or killed by heart attacks went into the streets. They did not know that the worst was yet to come.

Early in the morning of the 25th, a surge, sometimes called a death cloud, raced down the mountain. A volcanic surge is a fast moving, ground hugging cloud of ash, rock particles, and poisonous gas. The death cloud may have been moving at a rate of more than 100 miles per hour and may have reached temperatures as high as 750° Fahrenheit. The death cloud blew apart and incinerated anything in its path.

 

Discussion

> From the geologist’s description, explain what happened to the people and the city of Pompeii as if you were an eyewitness.

> It is said that this explosion both destroyed and preserved Pompeii. How could it do both?

> Discuss your list of what you want to know (“W”). How does this reading answer any of your questions?

 

 

 

Factsheet 2: The Archaeological View

 

For centuries after Pompeii became an ash-covered graveyard, there were stories of a lost city near Vesuvius. In the year 1594, a wealthy count wanted to have water from the river Sarno on his property, which lay just south of Vesuvius. The workmen dug through the volcanic rock, uncovered the ruins of an ancient building with the words “decurion Pompeiss.” Soon it was forgotten. In 1748, Spanish engineers discovered the ruins of an ancient temple and a skeleton with bronze and silver coins scattered beside it. The Spanish engineers apparently had little interest in unearthing the lost city. Their main interest seemed to be finding money and trophies. A hunt for treasure in the lost city began. The identity of the city became known when the workers came upon an inscription that read “res publica Pompeianorum.”

The diggers moved from area to area, making shafts and tunnels, and finding and taking what might be valuable. The looting and search for treasure continued, inflicting a great deal of damage upon the ruins of Pompeii. However, the attention of scholars who were more interested in investigating the past and preserving the lost city rather than looting it began to take hold. In 1860, the king of Italy, who understood the importance of Pompeii to his country’s history, hired a group of workers to carefully uncover and examine Pompeii. His most important contribution was appointing the head of the excavation, Giuseppe Fiorelli.

Giuseppe Fiorelli led the first systematic archaeological dig of Pompeii. He carefully quarried through the volcanic rock, found a wall that surrounded much of the city, and divided the site into sections called regiones. He made certain every new find was precisely described in writing in terms of its appearance, its position, and its relationship to other objects. During his work one day, Giuseppe began thinking about how the ash had covered everything and become hardened. He reasoned that cavities found in the rock had been made by human bodies covered by the hardened ash. Acting on this belief, when cavities were found, he had them filled with liquid plaster of Paris. When the rock was chipped away, plaster molds of the victims of Vesuvius emerged. The people were in the exact positions of their death.

Over the years, archaeological finds have revealed much about life in Pompeii. Some finds include:

 

Discussion

> Explain how archaeologists have uncovered Pompeii.

> Choose at least four of the examples of the archaeological findings discussed and explain what they tell us about life in Pompeii.

> Explain how the finds of archaeologists support what geologists say about the explosion of Vesuvius.

> Discuss your list of what you want to know (“W”). How does this reading answer any of your questions?

Factsheet 3: The Historical View
(An Eyewitness Account)

 

Almost twenty miles from Pompeii, at the naval base of Misenum, seventeen-year-old Pliny the Younger watched the explosion. Although he experienced many of the same effects of Vesuvius, because of the distance involved, those effects were not as deadly. The following are excerpts from his eyewitness account of the explosion:

 

The cloud was rising . . . In appearance and shape it was like a tree. Like an immense pine tree for it shot up to a great height in the form of a tree trunk, which extended itself at the top into several branches. It was dark and spotted, as if it had carried up earth and cinders. My uncle [Pliny the Elder] deemed the phenomenon important and worth a nearer view.

 

Though it was the first hour of the afternoon, the light was faint and uncertain. The buildings around us were so unsettled that the collapse of walls seemed a certainty. We decided to get out of town to escape this menace. The panic-stricken crowds followed us, in response to that instinct of fear which causes people to follow where others lead.

 

When we were clear of the houses we stopped. The sea appeared to have shrunk as if it had withdrawn by tremors of the earth. Many sea creatures were dead on the shore. Behind us loomed a horrible black cloud ripped by sudden bursts of fire, writhing snakelike and revealing sudden flashes larger than lightning. We ran.

 

Soon afterward the cloud began to descend upon the earth and cover the sea. Ashes fell upon us. Though as yet of no great quantity, I looked behind me. Darkness came rolling over the land like a torrent. I proposed, while we could still see, [to stop and rest]. We had just sat down when darkness overspread us, not like that of a moonless or cloudy night, but of a room when it is shut up and the lamp put out. You could hear the shrieks of women and crying children and the shouts of men; some were seeking their children, others their parents; some praying to die, from the very fear of dying; many lifting their hands to the gods, but the greater part imagining that there were no gods left anywhere. That the last and eternal night was come upon the world.

 

Discussion

> Describe what it might have been like to be in Pompeii during the explosion of Vesuvius.

> Explain how Pliny’s account compares to the geologist’s and archaeologist’s accounts.

> Discuss your list of what you want to know (“W”). How does this reading answer any of your questions?