The unsettling silence of Pompeii - Curt Yeomans

The ruins of the ancient Roman town of Pompeii are at their eeriest after 6:30 p.m., when most of the tourists have left for the day and only a few stragglers are hanging around before the site closes.

Ah, the legendary Pompeii. The city's name remains as instantly recognizable today as it was when it was buried under mounds of volcanic ash nearly 2,000 years ago. Much of what is left of the ancient city, which has since been excavated, is the remains of walls, a few roofs, a couple of statues, mosaics here and there, some isolated columns, and a couple of arches.

After 6:30 p.m., a lot of what you'll hear at the site of the ruins is just the gentle blowing sounds of the breeze flowing in from the nearby Sea of Naples, and a few birds calling out as they fly overhead. In the distance, you can hear the hum of life going on in the modern-day incarnation of Pompeii below.

On April 9, just before 7 p.m., I was walking down a very narrow, winding street, when I heard a siren blaring out across the ancient ruins. Immediately, instinct kicked in and, because of where I was, I turned back to look to the north, at what appears to be two mountains towering over the site. My heart was pounding faster as I turned back, hoping the siren didn't mean what I believed it did. There is a moment where I thought to myself, "OK, how fast can I run, and in which direction should I be running?"

Against the backdrop of a setting sun, the two ridges form a picture of serenity. They appear blue from a distance, set against a pinkish peach and lightly purple sky. There a few fluffy, white clouds drifting overhead. I already knew I was not looking at a pair of mountains, though. It's just one giant mass of geological matter. It's the volcano known as Mount Vesuvius. Those two apparent ridges are the high edges of its crater.

As it turns out, the volcano was not showing signs that it was ready to explode again. The siren is just a way of letting visitors know the site is about to close for the night, and it is time for them to leave. Pompeii is said to be the best-preserved remains of an ancient Roman city, thanks to all of the ash that completely covered it when Mount Vesuvius blew its crown in a violent explosion in the year 79.

A well-known spot to visit in the ruins site is a place known as "The House of the Fawn," because of a small statue of a dancing fawn located in the courtyard of the ruins of the house. The thing to see here is not the fawn, though.

What you need to do is walk deeper into the ruins of the house, where you will find the remains of a floor-tile mosaic depicting a battle between Alexander the Great and Xerxes, from Persia. The Persians are mostly still intact, but most of the part depicting the Greek army has been lost. What remains of the Greek side is Alexander, from the waist up, and the head of his horse.

One of the most intriguing, and eeriest legacies of the volcanic eruption, though, is the molds of the victims who died in Pompeii. The story of the molds is that, as the bodies of the victims buried under the ash decayed, what was left behind were empty shells in the outlines of the bodies.

When the city was re-discovered, and excavations began in the 18th Century, plaster was poured into these hollow shells, to make the molds of the victims. One of the victims seemingly hadn't finished decomposing, though, because his, or her, skull makes up an exposed portion of the victim's mold.

I had never looked into the face of death, in person, until the day I visited Pompeii.

Curt Yeomans covers education for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at cyeomans@news-daily.com.