Napoleon’s artists and their new views of Australia

In April 1802 when the lookout station situated on the southern headland at the entrance to Port Jackson reported the sighting of a French naval vessel approaching, the news spread quickly through the streets of Sydney. Isolated on the far side of the world from England, it was normal for news of the arrival of a ship to cause excitement at the prospect of news from Europe and the hope of fresh supplies. The armed corvette Le Naturaliste however, was an unusual arrival and unlikely to bring much comfort to the town.

Throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century successive British and French expeditions had explored the islands and adjacent coasts of the vast Pacific Ocean gathering information on the people, products, geography and resources of the enormous region – and in the case of Cook, laying claim to large parts in the name of his King.

Placed in this context the Baudin expedition continued an unbroken tradition of the great French scientific expeditions of Bougainville, La Perouse and d’Entrecasteaux, but this period had also been one of enormous political upheaval in France with the execution of the Louis XVI in 1793 leading to the first coalition of European governments opposed to ideals of the French Revolution.

Protected from the wars sweeping the Continent by its powerful navy and the English Channel, Britain had thus been at war with France for eight years by the time Nicolas Baudin’s ships Geographe and Naturaliste sailed from Le Havre in October 1800. The last years of the century had also seen the meteoric rise to power of general Napoleon Bonaparte and the expansion of French ambitions beyond Europe with his invasion of Egypt in 1798. The British destruction of France’s naval support for the Egyptian campaign at the Battle of the Nile effectively stranded Napoleon’s army in Egypt, resulting in the general hastily abandoning his troops and returning to Paris, but despite this failure by the end of 1799 Napoleon had taken the title of First Consul and was busy consolidating France’s military into an ever-more-powerful force.

Le Naturaliste was not entirely unexpected. Sir Joseph Banks had written to Governor King in Sydney about the Baudin expedition after the French authorities applied for a passport from Britain in support of scientific advancement. The passport was granted but privately Banks suspected the French ships were being sent to ensure allegiance to the Republic amongst the populations of the French Indian Ocean islands of Ile de France [Mauritius] and Ile Bourbon [Reunion][i]. Banks stated that while the focus of Baudin’s cartographic work was not the east coast of New South Wales, it was possible that the French would pay a visit to the new colony sometime during their voyage.

As it happened the Geographe and Le Naturaliste had become separated during a fierce storm off the east coast of Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania] and after searching unsuccessfully, the captain of Le Naturaliste, Jacques-Felix-Emmanuel Hamelin, had headed to Port Jackson looking for Baudin and the Geographe.

The Geographe was not in Sydney but Hamelin received a warm welcome from the colonial authorities, Governor King hosting a ball for the Naturaliste’s officers and providing supplies and assistance to the ship. It was during this time that Matthew Flinders arrived in the Investigator with news of his encounter with Baudin off the south coast.

Despite this welcome news and the knowledge that the Geographe was heading for Port Jackson, Hamelin prepared to leave Sydney intending to return to the Ile de France [Mauritius] via Bass Strait. Hamelin’s encounter with the colonial authorities lasted just three weeks and while his short report detailed the defences and size of the garrison protecting Sydney and its satellite towns, it was largely descriptive and entirely apolitical in sharp contrast to the report later written by Baudin’s zoologist Francois Peron during the Geographe’s five month stay in Sydney[ii].
Francois Peron’s report to General Decaen on the British colony of New South Wales

News of the cessation of hostilities between France and Britain[iii] reached Sydney in May ostensibly bringing to a close almost a decade of war between the two nations. However, few believed the peace was likely to last very long[iv] and indeed in the event, it proved to be the only period of peace between the two between 1793 and 1815. Regardless of the peace, for Francois Peron, the Geographe’s stay in Sydney provided a unique opportunity to assess the British colony and its broader impact and potential to affect the colonies of France and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region.

Peron would later publish the official account of the voyage, but his report given to General Decaen, the French commander at the Ile de France in 1803, undoubtedly influenced Decaen’s attitude to Matthew Flinders when he arrived at the island a day after the departure of the Geographe.[v]

Peron’s report ends with the strong recommendation that the colony of New South Wales … ‘should be destroyed as soon as possible’ and that – ‘We could do it easily now; we will not be able to do it in 25 years’ time.’[vi]

In its structure the report lists the advantages Britain gains from having a rapidly expanding colony located strategically on the edge of the Pacific Ocean with ample territory to expand and with many commercial resources. Peron describes the town of Sydney and its satellite towns and gives detailed population figures to show how quickly the colony has expanded since its foundation some 14 years earlier, extending its reach in every direction and effectively making good the vast territorial claim made by Britain at the time of settlement.

He paints a picture of a thriving colony with successful whaling and sealing industries, productive farms producing large quantities of wool, hemp and wine, and a burgeoning trade with China and the Pacific islands – all well-supported by the British government through its system of convict transportation and its investment in its military administration and infrastructure. Indeed, the colony is so successful that if it continues to expand unchecked, France’s ambitions in the region will be lost altogether.

But for Peron (who claimed to have gathered a large amount of valuable information without raising suspicion)[vii] this threat to France could still be overthrown by sending a French force to attack Sydney from a landing in Botany Bay. The arrival of a strong force would easily overcome the poorly-trained and widely dispersed British garrison and would be supported by a spontaneous uprising of the Irish convicts. Together this force would overcome the inadequate military and naval defences protecting the colony.

In this context Lesueur’s detailed map of Sydney and its environs and his several views of the town’s principal buildings take on a more sinister and strategic importance as they indicate the location of the Government commissariat stores[viii], Military barracks[ix], gun batteries[x], prison[xi], Governor’s house[xii] and house of the military commander.[xiii]

While it was completely normal for foreign officers visiting the ports of rival nations to record details of what they saw[xiv], Peron’s report went far beyond mere description to become a vehicle for expressing his own highly subjective views. Regardless of the warm welcome Baudin’s men received in Sydney from Governor King in 1802, a reading of August Peron’s report clearly reveals that for him the friendship was a short-term convenience – a lull in the battle between France and Britain which had raged for centuries and within months would threaten the invasion of England.

— Nigel Erskine, Head of Research.

Art of Science Baudin’s — Voyagers 1800-1804 is part of our FREE galleries ticket.

This article originally appeared in Signals 120 (September 2017). Uncover more maritime history and stories in our quarterly magazine Signals, which is now available for iPad via the App Store.

The museum would like to advise visitors that this exhibition may contain names and images of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Further reading

[i] Mitchell Library, King family – Correspondence and memoranda, 1775-1806

A 1980/2 CY 906, p.37. Cited in Fornasiero, J. and West-Sooby, J. 2014, French Designs on Colonial New South Wales, published by The Friends of the State Library of South Australia, Adelaide, p.60

[ii] The Geographe entered Port Jackson 20 June 1802 and departed 18 November.

[iii] The Treaty of Amiens was signed in March 1802.

[iv] It lasted only until 18 May 1803.

[v] Flinders arrived at Ile de France on the schooner Cumberland 17 December 1803.

[vi] Francois Peron’s Report to General Decaen, 1803 in Fornasiero J and West-Sooby J, 2014 French Designs on Colonial New South Wales, Friends of the State Library of South Australia, Adelaide, Appendice 1, p.317

[vii] Ibid, p.293

[viii] Three buildings each marked ‘B’ on Lesueur’s Plan de la Ville de Sydney

[ix] Marked ‘F’

[x] Two batteries, one on either side of the entrance to Sydney Cove, each marked ‘M’

[xi] Marked ‘H’

[xii] Marked ‘D’

[xiii] Marked ‘E’

[xiv] See for example James Cook’s description of the Portuguese forts defending Rio de Janeiro, in The Journals of Captain James Cook – The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771, (Edited by JC Beaglehole), Cambridge University Press, 1955, p.31

Film exploring Indian Australian identity – a must see!

Over the next few months there will be some Indian-Australian visitors who will have the opportunity to see themselves in our exhibition East of India – Forgotten trade with Australia exhibition. No, we haven’t commissioned portraits – they are participants in a short film called Indian Aussies: Terms and Conditions Apply commissioned by the museum especially for our exhibition. The film has been produced and directed by Anupam Sharma of Film and Casting Temple, you might remember him as a judge on the SBS reality TV show Bollywood Star.

Director Anupam Sharma and Director of Photography Caz Dickson at Milsons Point, filming first Indian female train driver.

We were keen to include a component in the exhibition that explored Australian and Indian connections today. We have always explored the history of immigration at the museum, but this film is something different, it includes a diverse range of interviewees reflecting on their experiences in Australia and their cultural identity. Anupam and his team visited Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney where interviews took place in suburban homes, workplaces, city streets, on the harbour and even in the editing suite.

Indian Aussie cruise owner Sudhir Warrior with Japanese Aussie Indian family talking to film crew.

My colleague, Niki and I had the chance to spend a few hours with the team at Film and Casting Temple and loved seeing the raw footage of the interviews – before the difficult editing process took place. The film combines serious issues, cheeky humour and a fresh approach to Indian Australian connections.

80 year old Indian Aussie being filmed for the film.

East of India – Forgotten trade with Australia opens on 1 June. Perhaps visit the Sydney Film Festival and then pop into the museum. In the meantime I hope you enjoy some photos shot on location to whet your filmic appetite.

Michelle Linder
Curator

The search for Endeavour – The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project and the Australian National Maritime Museum

On 3 May 2016 Dr Kathy Abbass, Project Director from the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP), announced that, aided by a grant provided by the Australian National Maritime Museum and some previous research carried out by the museum’s Head of Research Dr Nigel Erskine, she had located a report by a Lieutenant John Knowles, the Agent for Transports at Newport, dated 12 September 1778 at the National Archives in London.

The Knowles report provided a breakdown of where a small fleet of troop transports had been sunk in Newport in August 1778. One of these transports was a 368-ton bark called the Lord Sandwich and it had been sunk, along with four other transports – the Earl of Orford, Yowart, Peggy and Mayflower – between the northern tip of Goat Island and the North Battery in Newport Harbor.

Dr Abbass’s press release created a media storm in the United States, Britain and Australia as the news flashed around the world. Why? – because maritime researchers and historians knew that the Lord Sandwich was in fact HMB Endeavour. Probably the most contentious vessel in Australia’s history, it had not only charted the east coast of Australia in 1770 under the command of Lieutenant James Cook but had also caused, indirectly, the European occupation of Australia in 1788 and the dispossession of the Aboriginal and Torres Straits peoples from their land.

One such group of researchers was based at the Australian National Maritime Museum and had been working with Dr Abbass and volunteers from RIMAP since 1999 in an attempt to discover the last resting place of the Lord Sandwich ex HMB Endeavour in the harbour off the town of Newport in the State of Rhode Island, USA.

Since the mid-1990s Dr Abbass had been investigating a number of British naval vessels and charted troopships which had been deliberately sunk off Newport in August 1778 during the American Revolutionary War.

Dr Abbass had gone to England acting on advice from Antonia Macarthur, curator of the then Endeavour Foundation (former operators of the HMB Endeavour replica, now based at the Australian National Maritime Museum), following a lead published by Sydney maritime historians Mike Connell and Des Liddy in the Australian Association of Maritime History’s journal The Great Circle (1997, 40–49). These two historians, prompted by a proposed donation to the Australian National Maritime Museum, had carried out research that suggested HMB Endeavour had been sold out of naval service and renamed Lord Sandwich in 1777.

At the archives Dr Abbass located records that confirmed that the Lord Sandwich was indeed Cook’s bark Endeavour, that it had first served as a troop transport taking English and Hessian troops (German mercenaries employed by the English during the Revolutionary War) to North America and was then used as prison ship in Newport Harbor before it was intentionally sunk in Newport Harbor in 1778 (Mellefont, J, ‘The search for Endeavour’, Signals 47: 28–29).

The Lord Sandwich in Newport

Following the signing of the French–American Treaty in the spring of 1778, France entered the Revolutionary War on the side of the Americans and sent a fleet of 12 warships, under the command of Admiral Comte d’ Estaing, to support the American war efforts. The French fleet arrived off the mouth of Narragansett Bay, close to the town of Newport, in early August 1778. The arrival of such a large enemy fleet off the town prompted General Pigot, the senior English officer in Newport, to order that 13 transports be sunk in the town’s outer harbour to keep the French ships from coming too close to shore.

On August 3 1778 it was reported that:

‘this morning I caused five Transports to be sunk in the passage between Goat Island and the Blue Rocks, to prevent the Approach of the Enemy too near the North Battery, so as to attack it with Advantage. And Five more Transports are proceeding out, in order to be sunk between Goat Island and Rose Island for the same Purpose’

(Abbass, 1999, p 15)

A further three transports, four Royal Navy frigates and a number of smaller vessels were sunk over subsequent days.

On 9 August 1778 an English fleet under Admiral Howe arrived off Point Judith at the entrance to Narragansett Bay. The French fleet, which had been bombarding the defences of Newport, went out to meet the new threat. As the two fleets manoeuvred for a tactical advantage the weather deteriorated and a major storm developed, scattering both fleets and severely damaging the 90-gun French flagship Languedoc. Both the French and English fleets withdrew and Newport remained in the hands of the English for another year (McBurney, 2011: 128–129).

When the news arrived back in England that the transports had been scuttled during the siege, the owners expected to be reimbursed for their loss. This was because the transports were charted to, and not owned by, the government. The valuations listed (along with nine other transports) the Lord Sandwich, of 368 71/94 tons, which entered into paid service on 7 February 1776. (Abbass, 1999, compiled from ADM 106/3404 and ADM 49/127).

Based on the Public Records Office documents, there can be no doubt that this is the same Lord Sandwich that had been HMB Endeavour (of 368 71/94 tons), and that it was one of the transports sunk in Newport’s outer harbour in 1778.

RIMAP and the Australian National Maritime Museum

Given HMB Endeavour’s pivotal role in the European occupation of Australia, the Australian National Maritime Museum was extremely interested in Dr Abbass’s work and after an intensive search for funding and support in August 1999 the museum sent a material conservator, Sue Bassett, and two maritime archaeologists, Paul Hundley and Kieran Hosty, over to Newport to assist RIMAP with the project.

Newport fieldwork, 1999

With the methodology for the fieldwork developed and approved by the Rhode Island State Archaeologists in 1999, a combined RIMAP/ANMM team conducted a limited excavation on a site known as Primary Target A or the Naval Hospital Cannon Site in August 1999.

This site consisted of a stone ballast mound approximately 15 metres long by 10 metres wide and 1 metre high, two iron cannons, some scattered timbers and two small piles of bricks – possibly associated with the ship’s galley or kitchen.

The RIMAP/ANMM team excavated a 10 foot by 10 foot (3 metre x 3 metre) grid just to the north of the ballast mound and located the ship’s keelson – complete with scarf joints, a series of first and second futtocks, frames, outer hull planking, ceiling planking and the top of the vessel’s keel. All these features were carefully recorded, the lines (shape of the hull) taken off and timber, silt, stone and coal samples recovered.

Analysis of the vessel’s scantlings and examination and identification of the timber, coal, stone and sediments indicated that while this vessel was most likely one of the British vessels sunk in 1778, it was not HMB Endeavour (Bassett et al, 1999).

Newport fieldwork, 2000

Following the August 1999 Newport fieldwork – which successfully tested the methodology established by Dr Kathy Abbass and Paul Hundley – the project was discussed at the Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology Conference in Sydney in September 1999 and at the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference in Quebec in January 2000.

As Primary Target A (the Hospital Cannon Site) had proved not to be HMB Endeavour, the RIMAP/ANMM team proposed at the two conferences that a remote sensing survey of Newport Harbor be carried out and that any sites located be tested using the Abbass/Hundley methodology.

In early August the team commenced a survey of Newport Harbor using side scan sonar equipment provided by Klein & Co of the United States.

Using a Klein 2000 with an integrated Global Positioning System (GPS), Joe Zarzynski and Bob Benway from Klein and the RIMAP/ANMM team conducted a series of remote sensing surveys of the seabed. The three areas chosen for the survey were along the west coast of and offshore from Goat Island, between Fort Greene and Rose Island and in an area to the east of Gull Rocks bounded by Coasters Harbor (a small island) and the Naval Hospital.

The team located and buoyed 14 sonar anomalies and then, depending upon the state of the tides, dived the potential shipwreck sites in a process called ground truthing.

In nine cases the anomalies were discounted as being false echoes caused by local geology, shelving sand or silt, or recently deposited material such as bridge debris. However four substantial anomalies representing possible ballast mounds were located just to the south of the Newport–Jamestown Bridge (opened 1969). The locations of these four potential sites were recorded using GPS, Loran C and shore transits and will be investigated at a later date.

In mid-August the team began working on the remains of two shipwrecks lying side by side in 12–13 metres (36–40 feet) of water just to the north of the Jamestown Bridge. This site, which has been codenamed GAMMA, consisted of a small wooden and iron 20th-century barge lying on a north–south axis and a much earlier stone ballast mound, with an associated anchor, lying partly under the barge on an east–west axis.

As the work on GAMMA was progressing, members of the team continued to ground truth anomalies to the north of the barge between Gull Rocks and Coasters Harbor. Historical information indicated that at least one and possibly two of the transports had been scuttled in the channel between these two features – possibly to block the northern approaches into Newport Harbor and Fort Greene.

During the last week of the project the RIMAP/ANMM took part in an innovative experiment to publicise the project’s work and the work of the team sponsors. Using technology provided by the United States Navy’s Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC), a live weblink was established between ANMM/RIMAP archaeologists working on the seafloor and visitors to the RIMAP/NUWC webpage. The experiment was quite successful, with people logging on in America and Australia to observe the divers at work and to ask the archaeologists questions about the project.

Newport fieldwork, 2001

As the Newport fieldwork report for August 2000 indicated that the GAMMA wrecksite had a one in three chance of being the Lord Sandwich ex HMB Endeavour, in May 2001 the Australian National Maritime Museum endorsed the return of a museum team to Newport in 2001.

As in previous years, the 2001 season’s work was led by Dr Kathy Abbass. The works program also included additional excavation work on GAMMA wrecksite at the northern end of Newport Harbor along with an extensive remote sensing survey of Newport Harbor with the NUWC.

After a quick reconnaissance, a four-point mooring system was established on GAMMA in early August 2001, trail lines were placed around the site and a simple grid system was established around the proposed excavation areas at the bow and stern.

Excavation work commenced on an area at the western end of the ballast mound, which had been briefly explored in August 2000 by Paul Hundley and the former diving conservator at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sue Bassett. Both Bassett and Hundley had recorded that just below the surface of the sediment they had come across a large transverse timber – possible a frame or futtock lying directly over what appeared to be the keelson of the ship, one of the key components of a vessel. If the timber was positively identified as a keelson, it could be used as a major diagnostic feature and help to identify the size and nationality of the vessel.

RIMAP and ANMM divers quickly uncovered the transverse timber that Hundley and Bassett had found the previous year, and 150–200 millimetres (six to eight inches) below the bottom of this timber they came across the upper surface of what was quickly identified as the keelson of the ship.

The team eventually uncovered almost 250 centimetres (8 feet) of keelson before it tapered out at the stem post or bow of the vessel. A second dive confirmed that the team had located the stem post, cant frames along with either the first floor or first futtock (rib) and the place where the keelson and keel merge into the complex of timber which makes up the bow of the ship. Unfortunately the timbers were too badly degraded for a sample of the keel to be obtained.

Although the ANMM/RIMAP team had only just started work on the GAMMA site, the team broke off excavation work on GAMMA in order to take advantage of the use of staff, sonar and surveying equipment from the NUWC in Newport.

The first site to be investigated was GAMMA. The dual frequency, E G & G sub-bottom profiler quickly picked up a significant layering of material on the site and also indicated that a substantial anomaly lay just to the north of GAMMA – possible the location of another 1778 British transport.

The team then moved on to the Hospital Cannon Site and repeated the process. This time, possibly because of the shallowness of the water, the system was less effective, failing to detect the small stone ballast mound.

The last run for the day was conducted at Coddington Cove – a small cove on Rhode Island to the north of the Newport Bridge – where the English Royal Navy frigate Juno was abandoned and burnt during the Battle of Newport in August 1778. Here the sub-bottom profiler was able to detect a significant anomaly below the sediment of the cove – possibly the remains of a vessel that has not been seen for more than 200 years.

Over the next few days the ANMM, RIMAP and NUWC team carried out searches along the western coast of Rhode Island testing the system on the sites of three other Royal Navy frigates, Cerberus, Orpheus and Lark, which were abandoned and burnt at the same time as Juno. Here the sub-bottom profile system proved to be very successful, detecting the remains of the three frigates and respective stone ballast mounds.

After locating the frigates the team’s attention turned to the area to the south of the Newport Bridge between Goat and Rose islands and along an area known as Tracey Ledge. In August 2000 RIMAP and the ANMM had located a number of potential sites in this area using a side scan sonar, but were unable to locate the sites when the seafloor was searched.

This time, using the latitude/longitudes obtained from the side scan sonar’s differential global positioning system (DGPS), the area was swept using the sub-bottom profiler and a series of anomalies was located. Subsequent research indicates that these anomalies lie in an arc that mimics a drawing produced by an English Artillery Officer called Fage who drew the positions of the sunken transports shortly after they were scuttled. This arc of sunken ships is also apparent on a French naval chart drawn up during the French occupation of Newport in 1780.

With many of the sites located, at least electronically, it was now up to the archaeologists from RIMAP and the ANMM to try identify each of the located shipwrecks.

Newport post-2001

However, like many other disciplines, maritime archaeology is never straightforward and fieldwork is greatly influenced by many outside factors, such as funding constraints in the USA and Australia and other fieldwork priorities, including the museum’s involvement in other maritime archaeological projects in Fiji, Tonga, the Coral Sea and on the Great Barrier Reef and RIMAP’s focus on other vessels wrecked in the waters of Rhode Island.

Despite these influences, the museum continued to engage with Dr Abbass and RIMAP, sending over representatives in 2002 and again in 2007 and being regularly briefed and kept up to date with progress as the RIMAP team gradually located and surveyed nine of the 13 transports scuttled in Newport Harbor in 1778.

In early 2015, with the establishment of the Maritime Archaeology Research Centre (MARC) at the Australian National Maritime Museum, and influenced by the approaching 250th anniversary of HMB Endeavour’s voyage up the east coast of Australia in 2020, the museum and the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which outlined future collaborative archaeological projects and potential funding opportunities between the two parties.

Under the MoU, in September 2015 Dr Nigel Erskine, Head of Research and Kieran Hosty, Manager of the Maritime Archaeology Program at the museum, once again headed to Newport to assist in the ongoing search for HMB Endeavour ­– a search which has just been made a whole lot easier thanks to the discovery of the Knowles Report in London’s National Archives.

— Kieran Hosty, Curator Technology and Archaeology

Climb aboard the replica of HMB Endeavour at the Australian National Maritime Museum. For a true taste of history, why not sail on the HMB Endeavour during her next voyage.

The search for Endeavour – The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project and the Australian National Maritime Museum

Eruption day at Pompeii 79 AD

The date the eruption which consumed Pompeii is normally given as 24th August, as this is the date that appears in the standard classical text of Pliny the Younger’s Letters. It is written down as nonum kalends Septembres – the ninth day before the first (kalends) of September[1] – which, to the modern reader seems an awkward way of recording a date.

Classical Sources

Interestingly this date does not agree with the only other detailed account of the eruption: Dio Cassius, in his Histories written about 200 AD, recorded that the eruption happened in late autumn ‘kat auto to phthinoporon’[2].

Though Pliny was an eyewitness (but writing two decades after the event), the archaeological evidence tends to favour Cassius Dio’s timing for the eruption.

Archaeological Evidence

In 1797 Carlo Maria Rosini, in his Dissertationis isagogicae ad Herculaneum voluminum explanationem pars prima, argued that the traces fruits harvested in autumn – such as pomegranates, chestnuts, dry figs, raisin grapes, pine cones and dates – found at both Herculaneum and Pompeii, meant that the eruption could not have happened in late August. He also noted heating braziers in the public rooms of some of the houses as evidence of cold weather, he suggested an eruption date in late November[3].

A still life fresco showing fruit bowl, a jar of wine and a jar of raisins from House of Julia Felix in Pompeii. Image: Museo Archeologico di Napoli, via wikicommons.

Later archaeologists concurred Rosini and Cassius Dio, noting evidence that the grape harvest had already taken place: Not only were grapes present but also the waste products from pressing and sealed large underground amphorae indicating that new wine had recently been produced and stored[4]. According to Pliny the Elder, the grape harvest happened between 24 September and 11 October[5].

Wine amphorae displayed in Escape from Pompeii with Pompeiian vineyards in the background. Image: Andrew Frolows/ANMM.

Other fruits normally harvested in September and October have also been found: Figs, walnuts, carobs and olives. Pomegranates are harvested in late September, but they have been found in large quantities including at the Villa of Oplontis, where over a ton of pomegranates were discovered laid out on mats. Yet more pomegranates were also found on the floor in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii[6].

Figs, in the bowl to the far left, and grains found at Pompeii, as displayed in Escape from Pompeii. Image: Will Mather/ANMM.

The clothing of the victims might also support the theory that it was later in the year when the eruption occurred. Many of the casts indicate that the victims were wearing

heavy clothing unusual for the hot muggy weather of an Italian August. However, what you wear in a volcanic blizzard may not necessarily be indicative of the temperature, but rather reveal the need for protective clothing[7].

Plaster casts in the Garden of the Fugitives, Pompeii. Image: via wikicommons.

Two coins of Emperor Titus were found with a group of victims (two adults and two children) excavated in the House of the Golden Bracelet. Titus became Emperor on 24 June 79 AD. Based on the Emperor’s titles it has been argued that one of the coins must post date September 79 AD[8]. However, Richard Abdy points out that the coin is in very poor condition and that the inscription has subsequently been misread. He thinks the coin dates to either July or August 79 AD. It would be unusual – but not impossible – for coins of Emperor Titus to be circulating in Pompeii by 24 August[9]. It does, however, suggest a later date.

A study on the modern seasonal high altitude wind directions over southern Italy suggests a later timing too. From June to August winds are generally to the west, in autumn and winter they tend to blow to the northeast and southeast[10]. The ash dispersal pattern – a little ash in Herculaneum to the north along with a great deal in Pompeii and Stabiae to the south of Vesuvius – indicates that the wind was blowing south east on the day of the eruption.

Historical inaccuracies

So how did Pliny get it wrong? Well, he may not have. The letter was written around 100 AD, and later became part of nine books of letters published by Pliny before he died in 113 AD. A tenth book of his letters to Trajan was published after his death. Publishing at this time meant copying out by hand.

There would have been a number of manuscript copies of these letters made in his lifetime, after that the preservation of the letters required new copies to be made as the paper decayed. Copying was time-consuming and expensive so decisions had to be made of what to copy. The collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity influenced which Classical texts were prioritised to be transcribed.

Luckily, Pliny’s polished writing style was considered good for studying Latin, still the language of learning, so his Letters continued to be copied over the centuries but not without errors. With each new copy mistakes easily crept in, especially when the monks doing the transcribing were not interested in the content, didn’t understand what they were copying (after all, the Roman dating system is not straightforward), or if the manuscript they were working from was itself badly damaged.

During the Renaissance, the renewed interest in Roman and Greek writers led to the surviving works of Ancient authors to be tracked down so that modern printed editions could be made. There were several manuscripts of the Letters surviving, though in varying states of completeness and quality.

One of the earliest and most complete manuscripts found was the Codex Laurentianus Mediceus (named for the Library that now holds it – the Laurentian Library of the Medici in Florence), it dates to the 9th Century AD. The Codex Laurentianus Mediceus gives the date of the eruption as Nonum Kal. Septembres (24th August). Other manuscripts had different dates: some do not specify a month, others give Kalends Novembres (1 November). Indeed, eleven different dates have been identified among the surviving manuscripts and early printed editions, ranging from 24th August to 24th October and even early November[11]. But as the Codex Laurentianus Mediceus is the main source for the standard classical text of Pliny’s Letters it is the 24th August date that appears in the majority of translations.

So a scribal error, likely from sometime between the 1st century and 9th century AD, could explain the conflicting dates between Pliny and Cassius Dio. When considered with the archaeological and botanical evidence, there is support for the theory of a late autumn date for the eruption.

— Will Mather, Curator Escape from Pompeii.

Further reading

[1] Pliny the Younger Book VI Letter 16

[2] For the Romans autumn began in mid-August. Roberts, Paul Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, the Trustees of the British Museum, 2013  p278

[3] Rolandi, G et al The 79 AD eruption of Somna: The relationship between the date of the eruption and the southeast tephra dispersion, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 169 (2007) p94

[4] Roberts opcit, p279

[5] Pliny the Elder XVIII 319

[6] Ibid, p279

[7] Ibid, p278

[8] Rolandi, G et al, opcit p95

[9] Adby, Richard The Last Coin in Pompeii: a re-evaluation of the Coin Hoard from the House of the Bracelet, The Numismatic Chronicle Vo. 173 (2013), pp79-83

[10] Rolandi et al, opcit p87

[11] Roberts opcit, p278

Lace and the displaced

This handmade silk handkerchief with bobbin lace was made in the early 1900s and brought to Australia in 1938-39 by the Strauss family, Jewish migrants fleeing Nazi Germany. The centre features a circle of silk fabric with the embroidered initials ‘RK’ for Roesle Kahn, mother of Otto Strauss. ANMM Collection 00046629.

The 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht

Today marks 80 years since Kristallnacht (‘Crystal Night’), the night when the Nazis targeted, arrested and murdered Jews across Germany and parts of Austria and Czechoslovakia. This coordinated attack on 9–10 November 1938, also referred to as the ‘Night of Broken Glass,’ takes its name from the shattered glass that filled the streets after thousands of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were vandalised or destroyed.

More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and deported to concentration camps in Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. Kristallnacht represented a turning point in the Nazi persecution of Jews and led to a marked increase in Jewish emigration from Germany.

At the museum, we hold a delicate collection of laces and textiles that provides the only tangible link to the experiences of German Jewish immigrants Otto Strauss and Ilse Strauss (née Gimnicher). After Kristallnacht, Otto’s older brother Franz was arrested and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, while Ilse’s father and uncle were thrown into prison on trumped-up charges. Tragically, most of Ilse’s family would perish in the Holocaust. Their collection evokes the fragile traces of displaced lives.