Archaeology / Classics and pop culture / Museums

Lego, Pompeii, and the power of anachronism

While doing research for my PhD thesis I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of anachronism. Broadly defined, anachronism means taking something from one historical time period and placing it in another. This can mean attributing modern ideas to ancient people, judging them by our values (or us by theirs), or it can mean something simple like imagining which historical figures you’d invite to dinner and wondering how they might interact. Ignorant anachronism can be dangerous as it misrepresents the past, often for gain in the present. Deliberate anachronism, like the dinner guest example, can be a lot of fun. Putting ourselves next to other periods from the past encourages us to think of ourselves as creatures from a particular part of history and to theorise about why we think the way we do. Similarly, when events and characters from different points in time are made to interact, interesting questions can arise from those connections.20150313_143110

Earlier this year I went back home to Sydney and visited a place where I spent much of my time during my undergraduate and masters degrees – the Nicholson Museum. For the past few years, the museum has had three interesting displays which, to varying degrees, harnessed the power of anachronism to teach and entertain their audiences. All three were models made of Lego: first there was a Colosseum, then the Athenian Acropolis and now there is one of Pompeii. They were created by Lego sculptor Ryan McNaught. What I found most interesting about the latest installment, (and something I have written about briefly in the past about the Acropolis model as well because it followed similar lines), is the decision to make reference within the model to many characters which in different ways have had some kind engagement with the city of Pompeii or its ruins and, crucially, to let them mingle.


Lego Colosseum, Lego Acropolis and Lego Pompeii at the Nicholson Museum

Lego is everywhere these days (including on the Res Gerendae blog!). Apart from being a lot of fun as a toy, it has now been used not only to fix artefacts and buildings, but also for building museum models of ancient landscapes. Museum models have traditionally been made of cork or plaster and many of these can still be found in museums around the world. They usually either provide an overview of a particular site which has some connection to the artefacts on display in the museum, or they give an example of a particular type of building so that audiences can learn more about an ancient society. Using Lego for such models means appealing to the audience through the material and not just the subject, since it’s safe to say that most people don’t get as excited about plaster or cork as much as they do about Lego.

In their Lego Pompeii, McNaught and the museum’s then curator Michael Turner created a setting where characters from different time periods have a space to interact. For most audiences, the city exists in only two forms: the way it was immediately before the eruption in AD79 and its current state. This snapshot-style conception forgets not only that Pompeii had existed for hundreds of years before the eruption (and had its own ruins while the Romans lived there), but that its current form as a tourist attraction has also had many different incarnations throughout the last few hundred years due to different reconstructions and collapses.

There are many different characters represented in the model so I have just picked a few to show here. In this first one we have Pink Floyd playing music in the amphitheatre as they did in 1971 (one of them returned in 2016), sharing the arena with the Nucerians and Pompeiians who rioted there in AD59. Entertainment and violence were the point of the building, with gladiatorial shows being its primary (but not only) purpose. In its Lego version, the amphitheatre plays host to both, but not in the way we would ordinarily expect. The rock concert was played for a camera rather than a live audience and the entertainment it created was of a very different nature to that of gladiatorial combat. The violence in the first century, on the other hand, was between the spectators of one of these games rather than the gladiators and was so bad that the games were banned for a decade (see Tacitus Annals 14.17 for a description).


Pink Floyd perform at the Pompeiian amphitheatre while a riot between Pompeiians and Nucerians takes place nearby.

Elsewhere we have some ancient artists decorating a Pompeiian house: one paints the fresco and another assembles a mosaic. Once they were rediscovered hundreds of years later, such images inspired many more artists who painted scenes of the city. In the model we find the artist Karl Briullov whose work The Last Days of Pompeii, and others like it, has been as important (if not more) to the image of the city we all have in our minds as the wall and floor images being created by the Lego Pompeiians nearby.


Pompeiians creating frescoes and mosaics in a house, Karl Briullov painting The Last Days of Pompeii and the painting itself (1830-33)

Another thing Pompeii is famous for is the collection of plaster casts made from the cavities left by its victims in the volcanic ash. These were created by Giuseppe Fiorelli in the mid-1800s and today they are a blunt reminder of the human tragedy of the disaster. The stark white Lego versions do not capture the most harrowing aspects of Fiorelli’s casts, but they do remind us that the casts are not the bodies themselves but rather human fabrications. This was something apparently lost on the creators of the recent Pompeii movie which seemed to imply that the casts were the actual bodies turned to solidified ash (Kit Harrington, aka Jon Snow, is also in the model, since the movie wasn’t filmed on the site here we really transcend the line between ruined city, plastic model, movie set and mental image). Nearby, we can see Dr Estelle Lazer studying the bones of some of the Pompeiians. Today she also leads a project which aims to scan the casts made by Fiorelli to see the bones inside. Here the two stand near each other representing different generations and techniques of modern archaeology (there are also snakes around because Indiana Jones is not far away).


Giuseppe Fiorelli makes plaster casts while Dr Estelle Lazer studies the victims’ bones

One of my favourite parts of Lego Pompeii is this bit which shows Andrew Wallace-Hadrill filming a documentary in the city. Who other than Johann Joachim Winckelmann himself has come to watch and see how Professor Wallace-Hadrill tells his audience about the city and its art. Winckelmann thought the Greeks had reached the pinnacle of artistic endeavour and probably would not be impressed with how much interest we have for ancient Romans today. He would, however, probably be quite pleased that those that watch Wallace-Hadrill’s documentaries can visit a museum which will probably still say ‘Roman copy of a Greek original’ on practically every sculpture, always giving his ideal Greeks the upper hand.


Andrew Wallace-Hadrill makes a documentary near a statue as Winckelmann watches

There’s lots more to see in the model and, for those of you who might be nearby, you should really go and see it while it’s still on display. I hope that in future more museums will create opportunities for us to play with historical periods and see time enacted in space rather than as a simple line. It makes for entertaining viewing and makes us think about the connections that different periods of time have, or don’t, with each other. When done for the right reasons, a little bit of anachronism can go a long way.


Find me on Twitter @AlinaKozlovski 

5 thoughts on “Lego, Pompeii, and the power of anachronism

  1. Pingback: A world of (too?) many Pompeiis | res gerendae

  2. Pingback: Anachronism and site formation processes – Latin, Classics, and Education in the 21st Century

  3. Pingback: Constructive Play: Lego for learning in history, heritage and beyond | School of History & Heritage

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