Not all the remains come from those killed in the eruption
When we visit Pompeii, we like to imagine that the bodies we’re looking at that are those of Vesuvius’s victims; victims of the scorching pyroclastic flow, the deadly toxic gases or the lethal pumice stones raining from the volcano. Part of the reason for this is that it fits within the narrative of what we already know. And, let’s face it, there’s comfort in remembering and revising what we already know. Another reason for this is that we’re all guilty of time-capsule history; of assigning a particular moment to a place and forgetting what came before and, just as importantly, what came afterward.
Few people know that the volcanic eruption wasn’t the only natural disaster that befell that particular generation of Pompeians. The historian Tacitus (the pen pal Pliny later wrote to describing Vesuvius’s eruption) recorded a serious earthquake 17 years earlier in 62 AD, which reduced sections of the town to rubble. But though life in Pompeii may have changed dramatically in the wake of the earthquake, it didn’t stop. The same is to be said for after the eruption in 79.
And, while it’s unlikely any bodies from the earthquake were left lying around in situ in the 17 years before Vesuvius erupted, there’s little doubt that some of the humans remain recovered from the site date from the months, years and centuries after the eruption.
One such example comes from the House of Menander (named after the painting of the Greek dramatist of the same name found there). Three bodies were discovered—two adults and one child—armed with pickaxes in a room off the courtyard of this luxurious house. Archaeologists initially thought that they were trying to break their way out of the room when it collapsed around them. Flip this on its head though, and what’s to say they weren’t a band of looters who irreversibly weakened the already damaged structure as they broke their way in, making their looting ground their final resting place?