Scroll and Tablet Blog

Confused by my recent searches for pictures of human casts, Wikimedia Commons offered up this image as a result for my search terms “Roman York.” And thus I gained a lifetime’s supply of nightmare fuel.

Episode 62: In which Hades learns how Romans randomly made plaster casts of dead people, and Persephone starts a craft project with Theseus.

This cross-over episode of Real Housewives of Hades (a Mt. Olympus spin-off) and Real Housewives of Mt. Olympus brought to you by the latest archaeological news on – and by CLAS-B 312 Plague, Disasters and Death in the Ancient World.

[SETTING: Breakfast in Hades Palace in the Underworld]

PERSEPHONE, QUEEN OF THE UNDERWORLD AND RELUCTANT WIFE OF HADES: Hermes brought the mail from Olympus today. Oh look, my mom sent a care package! Let’s see…some ambrosia, some cookies, and…a scroll with some mortal news. (reading) “Saw this and thought of you and your worthless so-called husband.” How sweet!

HADES, KING OF THE UNDERWORLD AND OVERLY-ENTHUSIASTIC HUSBAND OF PERSEPHONE: You know, eventually your mother is going to have to accept that we’re married. It’s been 5,000 years.

PERSEPHONE: She knows. Remember how she got you that rotting snake carcass for our 4,500th abduction anniversary? That was supposed to be an insult, by the way, I don’t know how you feel about snake carcasses. (reading) This says that mortals are using 3D scanning to find images of dead bodies in plaster casts of ancient Roman burials. Neat!

HADES: Oh great, don’t tell me the mortals are making plaster casts of ancient corpses again. That was creepy enough when they did it in Pompeii. (gestures to THESEUS, KING OF ATHENS AND SLAYER OF THE MINOTAUR and PIRITHOUS, KING OF THE LAPITHS AND ROBIN TO THESEUS’ BATMAN) Why do you mortals do that anyway?

When you’re embarrassed for all of humanity.

THESEUS: (clearly terrified) Um, are you addressing us, Sire?

HADES: I figure if you two are going to be stuck at my table for all eternity, you might as well answer my questions about mortals. So answer. Why do you make plaster casts of corpses?

THESEUS: I honestly didn’t know that was a thing. Did you, Pirithous?

PIRITHOUS: Never heard of it. Can we go now?

PERSEPHONE: Actually, the mortals aren’t making casts of corpses this time. The Romans made the corpse casts, and the modern mortals are just looking at those. Apparently by taking really detailed pictures of them. Which does sound weird when you phrase it like that.

Not the family portrait they were hoping for.

HADES: (rolling eyes) Ugh, the Romans. For being one of those most organized empires in history, they sure were disorganized about burial rites. Inhumation, cremation, they were all over the place. Pick a lane. And now corpse casts?

PERSEPHONE: According to this scroll, the mortals don’t think that the Romans were making casts on purpose. They may have just been covering the burials with liquid gypsum.


PERSEPHONE: (shrugs) Why not, I guess? It seems to be just something they did for rich people occasionally. Most frequently in York. I mean, it’s pretty cold and stark up there. Maybe they didn’t have anything else to do for fun? Pirithous, does pouring liquid gypsum on dead people sound fun?

PIRITHOUS: Not really, but anything would be better than being stuck here…

HADES: Are the mortals taking pictures of the casts to figure out why the Romans made them?

PERSEPHONE: No, they’re trying to learn about the dead Romans themselves. Apparently after the modern excavations the mortals lost the original corpses themselves. And the casket.

HADES: Seriously? Don’t they know how important proper burial rites were to ancient people? That’s my rule. No proper burial, no passage to the afterlife. Theseus, you were there, you made it to the afterlife, back me up here.

THESEUS: Well, I did have an elaborate burial shrine in Athens. So that was nice. But then again, when I died I just came back here to be stuck at your dining table for all eternity. So I’m not sure it really mattered.

PERSEPHONE: Maybe we could get you some liquid gypsum and you could make casts of Pirithous. He’s dead! Does that sound fun?

PIRITHOUS: Um, I don’t think that sounds fun at all…

HADES: No. No fun. This is the Realm of the Dead. It’s very serious and bleak all the time down here. That’s my whole thing.

Not pictured: anything remotely Ancient Greek.

PERSEPHONE: I’m going to get some gypsum. We’ve got to have some somewhere around here, since we control all mineral wealth. I’m so excited! If the people who invented gladiators thought this was fun, it’s gotta be good…(leaves)

[A long moment of awkward silence]

HADES: I could go after her and stop her if I wanted to. I just don’t like leaving you two without someone watching you.

PIRITHOUS: But our bums are stuck to the bench. We can’t go anywhere or do anything.

HADES: You know what, maybe sealing your mouth shut with gypsum isn’t such a bad idea.

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To learn more about how important burial rites were to the ancient Greeks and Romans—and why that makes it so, so weird that we put casts of their corpses on display in Pompeii—enroll in our 1-credit “appetizer” course CLAS-B 312 Plague, Disasters and Death in the Ancient World, coming in the first-third of Fall 2023 with no pre-reqs! Or to learn more about what the Romans were doing all the way up in northern England, and how they got an African emperor out of it, sign up for CLAS-C 387 Roman History, also coming up Fall 2023 with no pre-reqs. While you’re waiting, make sure to check back for more adventures of Hades and Persephone. Can’t get enough of Ancient Greece and Rome? Earn a Classics Minor in just 15 credits!