Archaeologists studying the ancient Roman city of Pompeii have unearthed two new remains. Amidst the ashes from the ancient eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the stories of two men are slowly emerging. Believed to be a rich man and his male slave attempting to flee the volcano’s destruction, the two bodies will provide a wealth of information to archaeologists studying the times and lives of those who once called Pompeii home.
Vesuvius Rumbles and Pliny Observes
Most of what we know about Pompeii’s destruction comes from Pliny the Younger, a Roman scholar who was visiting his uncle, Pliny the Elder, across the bay from Pompeii. The Younger survived to write his harrowing account of the tragedy he witnessed across the water, sending his notes to historian friend Tacitus who preserved them.
In 79 A.D., tragedy struck the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum on an unimaginable scale. Leading up to the tragedy, earthquakes rattled the region frequently. Buildings unearthed in the past 3 centuries have shown evidence of earthquake damage as yet unrepaired by the time Vesuvius had her say over the lives of Pompeii’s citizens.
As the earthquakes increased in intensity and frequency, scientists and theoreticians in the region may have had an idea of what was to come. However, Mount Vesuvius had been dormant for centuries, and those who lived in the cities nestled at the volcano’s feet saw her has a looming benevolent force of nature; a weather break. The mountain smoked occasionally, and the earthquakes were concerning, but no one could have anticipated the horror that came next.
The First Ash Strikes Pompeii
For centuries, historians have debated the actual eruption date of Vesuvius. Contemporary reports mention August, but scientific studies and archaeological records suggest it may have actually occurred in October. In 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius sang her doom knell. Once a prosperous region full of farmland and a vibrant trade market, Pompeii’s story was about to change irrevocably for those lucky enough to survive.
Early in the morning of that fateful day, Vesuvius released a cloud of ash and steam, giving residents their first real hint that the seismic disturbances were a signal of something bigger. Pliny writes an account of how an eruption shortly after noon on the first day blasted hot ash high into the air and it began falling in earnest on the hapless cities below. The ash fell at a smothering rate of 4-6 inches per hour, at a temperature of nearly 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Buildings began melting and collapsing under the heat and weight of the ashfall as citizens, realizing too late what was happening, scrambled to flee.
Pliny the Elder, an Admiral in the Roman navy, attempted to land his fleet at this point to reassure citizens and render aid, but he and his men were overcome by toxic fumes. Pliny the Elder died late that night, overcome as they tried to flee.
Tragedy As the Volcano Enters a New Stage
Early the next morning, the 20-mile-high cloud of hot ash collapsed, sending a wave of pryoclastic ash racing for the city. InterestingEngineering explains, “A pyroclastic surge is a mixture of gas and rock fragments. The temperature of the first surge is estimated at 360–430° F (180–220° C), while the temperature of the second surge is estimated at 430-500° F (220-260° C).
The surges heat even windowless, interior rooms in Pompeii to at least 212° F (100° C), or the boiling point of water. By now, the city of Herculaneum and its population no longer exist.”
The next surge brought ash of nearly 500 degrees Farenheit and anyone left alive perished. This was around 6:45AM on the second day, less than 24 hours from the first ash cloud.
Pompeii Disappears from the Map
By the time Vesuvius had expended her rage, Pompeii was buried under 80 feet of ash. In their homes and in the streets, both those who tried to hide and those who tried to flee perished alike. Their bodies were flash preserved by the heat and the entombing pressure of the ash. Their were left left to slowly rot but left behind impressions in the ash like casts. Because Pompeii was not directly downwind from the eruption like Herculaneum, it’s destruction was less violent and more preserving. Akin to an artist pouring hot resin over a feather; hot enough to kill, and thick enough to preserve. Herculaneum, however, suffered the brunt of the eruption and fared far worse.
In the late 1700’s, workers discovered the first buildings and bodies. In the late 1860’s, archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli claimed the site and began in earnest archaeological excavation. Fiorelli was astute enough to pour a chalk-like plaster into the impressions left behind by the dead, preserving their shape in eerie detail. Their bones encased in the plaster molds, the last moments of the residents of Pompeii were suddenly revealed to the world. In the intervening 160 or so years, recovery at the site has been ongoing with almost no pause. Nearly 1,500 casts of those who died have been made, and their bones studied. Because the plaster preserves the minor details so well, and the ash cast surprising details including clothing and expressions, archaeologists have been given a photograph of what life was like in ancient Pompeii.
Two Men Found in Pompeii
Last week, archaeologists made the exciting announcement that two more bodies have been unearthed. Although Pompeii was a bastion of civilization, trade, and modern conveniences, these privileges didn’t extend to all. It was also known as a mischievous city, with a booming prostitution and drug scene. The two new bodies appear to be a rich man and his slave.
Ranker shares, “In November 2020, archaeologists found the remains of two men inside a side room of a cryptoporticus (a covered gallery) below a villa at the excavation site Civita Guiliana just northwest of Pompeii. One skeleton, of a young man about 18 to 25 years old, revealed ‘a series of vertebral compressions, unusual in a young man of his age,’ suggesting that he had been doing hard labor and could have been an enslaved person. The second man, thought to be from 30 to 40 years old, was found with the remains of intricate clothing, including a tunic and mantle made of wool, that suggest he could have been a wealthy man.”
Pompeii Continues to Teach
Although it’s been nearly 2,000 years since Pompeii last shone as the city of mischief and trade, we learn more with every passing year. Observing the folds of clothing and detail preserved by the ash, we learn a lot more about the habits and lifestyle of the time period. Remains of horses and other animals have been recovered from Pompeii’s entombing embrace, and murals were preserved with stunning vivacity. When new bodies like these are discovered, it also allows for more DNA testing, along with a study of bones and teeth which helps paint a fuller picture of health and diet.
Per the New York Times, “With more than 50 acres still to be excavated, Pompeii continues to be ‘an incredible site for research, study and training,’ [Italian] Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said in a statement on Saturday. It is, he said, a mission for the ‘archaeologists of today and the future.’”