Unearthing Pompeii

This picture released by the archeological superintendence of Pompeii shows decorated cups and fine silver platters, unveiled in Rome, Monday, July 18, 2005 . The silvers are part of a Roman dining set hidden for two millennia in the volcanic ash of ancient Pompeii, near Naples, Southern Italy. Experts have spent the last five years extracting and restoring the 20 pieces of silver that were left behind by their owners as they fled the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, in A.D. 79.
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What is it about Pompeii that fascinates us so after all this time?

"It paints a picture of a very specific moment. And, it paints a picture of life, a very exciting, vibrant life," Francesca Madden, who is the curator of a new exhibit about Pompeii tells CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers.

On Aug. 23 79 AD, Pompeii was a prosperous, cosmopolitan seaport, a destination for merchants and pleasure seekers alike.

Its streets and markets rang with the hustle and bustle common to big cities of today. But what its citizens and those of nearby Herculaneum had no way of knowing was that Mt. Vesuvius was about to erupt.

"Those people would have had virtually no chance, virtually no warning. They must have thought the gods were out to get them or something," says geochemist Phil Janney.

A little after 1 p.m. of August 24, Vesuvius exploded, sending a massive plume of rock and ash 18 miles into the sky.

For two terrible days, death rained down. Pompeii, and most of its 20,000 citizens were buried alive in up to 10 feet of rock and ash. But this horrific aerial assault was just the beginning.

The volcano was also spewing super-heated gas, which roared down the mountainside.

These are called 'glowing avalanches,' you can imagine them as being something on the scale of about the largest tornado that we've encountered in modern times, traveling down the slope at 80 miles an hour at enormous temperatures of 12-1,300 degrees Fahrenheit," Janney says.