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It's been nearly 2,000 years since the ancient Roman city of Pompeii was destroyed, buried in ash after the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius.

To build excitement for its new exhibit, "A Day in Pompeii," the Denver Museum of Nature & Science posted to Twitter on Aug. 24 — the 1,933rd anniversary of the event — in the voice of Pliny the Elder, the famed Roman historian who witnessed the destruction from the town of Misenum, across the Gulf of Naples.

"A cloud made of ash and dirt appears to be coming from Mount Vesuvius," Pliny posted at 9:15 a.m., underscoring both the horror of the event — since Vesuvius' past eruption was in prehistoric times, most Romans had no idea what a volcano was — and the conditions that made Pompeii one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.

Photos: A Day in Pompeii at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Because of the way the volcanic ash settled on the city, its artifacts were perfectly preserved until they were rediscovered in the mid-1700s. Though most citizens were able to escape Pompeii, they had to leave their houses and possessions behind. When researchers began digging up the site in 1748, they discovered perfectly preserved frescoes, murals, statues, coins, furniture and jewelry and more — even a carbonized loaf of bread.

More than 250 such artifacts are on display in "A Day in Pompeii," the traveling exhibit that opens Friday and runs through Jan. 13 at the museum.


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"Culture is a critical aspect of what the museum does," says Steve Nash, the museum's curator of archaeology. "We're a museum of nature and science, and culture is included in science. Pompeii is arguably the most famous archaeological site in the world, and having firsthand access to these artifacts is a privilege for Denver."

As it does with all traveling exhibits, the museum has added a slew of enhancements to the Pompeii show, including an event series featuring lectures, parties and more, and a group of "historical enactors" who will roam the exhibit — and the museum at large — in historical garb, talking about their lives and the events of the day. Like Pliny the Elder, the citizens are aware that something strange is happening in Pompeii, but the rumbling may be only thunder — or perhaps an indication of the gods' moods.

Thanks to historical re-enactors behind the scenes, visitors to "A Day in Pompeii" will encounter the city as it might have looked just before the eruption. The section on home life features furniture, jewelry and more, while gladiator armor, dice and other amusements can be found in the section on entertainment. The museum also has constructed a replica of a Roman fast-food restaurant called a thermopolium, where visitors can handle the types of jars and containers that held dried foods for customers in old Pompeii.

"The artifacts really represent daily life," says museum educator Samantha Richards. "They are things you would have in your home. Things you would eat, places you would go, artifacts representing their religion and their burials — it's a time capsule of what we think was going on right before the eruption."

For an even more realistic look at Pompeii before and during the destruction, the exhibit includes two videos: one depicting daily life in the ancient city and the other that condenses the fire, smoke and ash of eruption day into a poignant four-minute loop.

Also poignant are the exhibit's most somber artifacts — a dozen body casts of volcano victims, created by injecting plaster into the hollow spaces their decomposed bodies left behind. One cast depicts a man and woman who died in the ash together; another shows a man with his hands over his mouth.

"It was an archaeologist in the 1860s who figured out to pour plaster in these cavities in the pumice and ash, and you can get, in some cases, an astonishingly precise reconstruction of that person in their final moments," Nash says. "This is a very moving and thought-provoking part of the experience."

But most thought-provoking for Coloradans with devastating wildfires fresh in their memories is the exhibit's central question: If your home were about to be destroyed, what would you take with you, and what would you leave behind? Unlike museum exhibits that display royal finery or other artifacts meant to stand the test of time, the Pompeii show features items from the homes of everyday people, offering a glimpse into life in A.D. 79.

"A lot of people did leave Pompeii, they had time to escape, but they didn't have time to get ready to escape. So they just left. They left bread in the oven. They left their comb on their dresser," Richards says. "It's really a unique experience to think about how ancient Romans were living. Imagine if we all just left Denver right now ... just grabbed ourselves and our children and maybe our dog and we left.

"What would your house look like?"

A DAY IN POMPEII. Presented by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 2001 Colorado Blvd. Friday-Jan. 13; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, with extended hours on weekends. $15-$24 (includes regular museum admission). Related events: "Bacchus Raucous — A Party in Pompeii," Sep. 28, $38-$43; "Volcanoes on the Verge" lecture, Oct. 2, $8-$10; "A Pompeii in the Americas" lecture, Dec. 6, $8-$10. 303-370-6000 or www.dmns.org/pompeii.