Well-Preserved Remains of Two Vesuvius Victims Found in Pompeii
According to Reuters, archaeologists discovered the remains of two men in an underground room in a large villa on the outskirts of the Roman city of Pompeii in southern Italy.
Based on the condition of their skeletons and garment traces, one man appears to have been a rich person in his 30s, while the other was most likely a slave or labourer in his early 20s.
They died together at the villa of Civita Giuliana, probably while trying to flee or seek better shelter from a dense, fast-moving cloud of superheated volcanic gas and ash.
The rich man and the slave
The find brings the total number of human remains at Pompeii and Herculaneum (a few kilometers west along the Bay of Naples) to more than 1,500.
Historians estimate that around 12,000 people lived in Pompeii and another 12,000 lived on the rich farmland nearby, but we don’t know how many of those people died in the eruption or its aftermath.
And we know a surprising amount about those 1,500 people, because the thick layer of volcanic ash that entombed them also preserved the details of their final moments, along with hints about the lives that led up to those moments.
Like many of the other remains at Pompeii, the two men in the villa lay in soft volcanic ash, which hardened around them and preserved the shape of their bodies long after their soft tissues had decayed. By making plaster casts of those impressions, archaeologists could see details like facial expressions and even the folds and pleats of clothing.
The younger man’s short life had been full of hard physical labor, which had compressed his spine and no doubt caused him pain. Archaeologists assume that he was a slave, since it’s hard to find another explanation for a young manual laborer in a wealthy villa.
His companion’s bones spoke of a life of good nourishment, and the scraps of a finely made wool cloak still tucked beneath his neck marked him as a man of means.
But both were equally helpless when the torrent of gas and dust, called a pyroclastic flow, swept down the slopes of Vesuvius. Their hands and feet are flexed inward, which suggests they died in a sudden blast of heat.
Some models of the eruption predict that even in the coolest and most sheltered parts of Pompeii, the pyroclastic flow would have heated the air to boiling. Even in the heart of the villa, no one could have survived.
A wave of death
The two men might have spent their last day thinking the worst was over. Around 1:00 pm the previous day, Mount Vesuvius blasted a dark, towering cloud of gas, ash, and rocky debris more than 30km (20 miles) into the sky. Pliny the Younger, watching from Misenum on the other side of the Bay of Naples, wrote later that the cloud looked like a pine tree.
Hot ash and chunks of porous rock called pumice rained down on Pompeii, Herculaneum, and neighboring towns for several hours before the edges of the cloud began to collapse under their own weight.
When that happened, the gas, dust, and rock fell downward and then rushed along the ground as a deadly pyroclastic flow—too hot and poisonous to survive, and too fast to outrun. It was a wave of death, and it washed over the town of Herculaneum first in the wee hours of the morning.
The two men in the villa on the edge of Pompeii couldn’t have known that, but they’d been watching pumice and ash fall from the dark sky all day, all night, and into the next morning.
By then, Vesuvius had blasted another tower of ash and gas into the stratosphere. When that cloud collapsed, its pyroclastic flow reached all the way into Pompeii, killing everyone who remained in the city, including the two men in the villa.
A second wave followed later that day, but by then, the rich man and the slave were already dead. In a nearby stable, three horses had been harnessed much too late to make an escape; archaeologists unearthed their remains, harnesses and all, in 2017.
Dead men tell some tales
Archaeologists have more to learn from the two men whose remains lay in the ash-filled ruins for nearly 2,000 years.
Further analysis could shed light on where they grew up, what they ate, and how they lived. And as archaeologists continue to excavate the rest of the villa, they may find clues about who the two men were and how they fit into life at Civita Giuliana.