The Last XXIV Hours: A Digital Take on The Last Days in Pompeii

Today marks the anniversary of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Italy, which erupted on August 24th, 79 AD. The eruption resulted in the rarest of archaeological resources: the entire city of Pompeii, smothered in volcanic ash, was frozen in that moment. The site itself is absolutely breathtaking, and it has provided archaeologists with countless amounts of information. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science has taken this event and turned it into a digital exhibit and social media campaign, integrating historical accounts and archaeological evidence as a means of telling the story of both Mt. Vesuvius, and daily life in the town.

First, the website. It’s a simple layout and site, that uses Google StreetView as a means for navigating the Pompeii ruins. It’s a fantastic and simple use of the technology to give visitors a glimpse of the site. Even better, they have integrated archaeological artifacts into the presentation, allowing visitors to click on various artifacts that are provided in spatial context. It’s a simple use of the technology, and is an accessible way for people to examine the town.

Their use of Twitter is my favorite component of this project. There is only one historical account of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, which was chronicled by Pliny the Elder. Using his account, a Twitter account has been established, and Pliny will be tweeting throughout the day about the events as they, er, happened. This is not a new thing: there have been historical events tweeted by historical actors before, sometimes spanning weeks or months or years (Wars seem to be popular). What I like about this, however, is that it is playing off a common use of Twitter in our current practice: As a means to report, in real time, about natural disasters or newsworthy events.

Certainly, the role of digital media has been critical in the reporting and reaction to natural disasters, beginning in large part with the earthquake in Haiti. Social media reporting was one of the primary means of getting information out of Haiti. Similarly, the Red Cross’s use of text messaging was the primary means of getting funds into Haiti through micro-fundraising.  More recently, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan resulted in an enormous use of Twitter from individuals caught in the storm, and the information was tweeted and retweeted across the world. Some studies have even been done, analyzing the use of Twitter in natural disasters, and suggesting that “official” hashtags be created to help validate the information that is being produced.

At any rate, this is the most effective part of the Pompeii experiment: to use an actual historical account, and an actual historical character, to “iReport” the news from the Pompeii disaster. Ideally, it becomes an avenue where Pliny reports, people RT, and also ask him for additional information. By positioning Pliny’s tweets within a framework of information dissemination that people already use, namely Twitter as a disaster reporting tool, they are approaching this historical event in a contemporary, urgent, and exciting way.

Follow Pliny the Elder. Check out the website here.