Silent Witnesses: 9 Astounding Revelations About the Bodies Discovered at the Pompeii Volcanic Explosion
Silent Witnesses: 9 Astounding Revelations About the Bodies Discovered at the Pompeii Volcanic Explosion

Silent Witnesses: 9 Astounding Revelations About the Bodies Discovered at the Pompeii Volcanic Explosion

Alexander Meddings - August 14, 2017

Silent Witnesses: 9 Astounding Revelations About the Bodies Discovered at the Pompeii Volcanic Explosion
Skeletons found in the cellar in Oplontis. Wine Spectator

The bodies paint a picture of everyday life

At the time of the eruption, Pompeii was home to anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000 people. So far we’ve uncovered around 1,500 bodies of the 2,000 estimated to have died in the disaster. But we are still continuing to find them: just a few months back in June 2017, French and Italian archaeologists uncovered the bones of four people, including a teenage girl, in a workshop on the Porto Ercolano. But it’s not just the bodies from within the town itself that can tell us about ancient life. A group of at least 54 fugitives found in a cellar in the nearby town Oplontis also help paint a vivid picture.

What’s fascinating is that their remains were divided into two groups. On one side of the room sat the rich. One man, with teeth as good as anyone’s today and muscles far in excess, has been identified as one of the wealthy on the basis that his bones were stained green. This didn’t come from any thermo-chemical reaction from the volcano; instead, it came from the sheer amount of precious metal he was wearing, which came into contact with the bone once the flesh had decomposed.

In fact, the wealth around them was quite extraordinary: lots of jewelry, gold bangles, worn gold and silver coins and unworn gold coins (indicating they were being used as savings rather than currency in circulation).

Then there are the two twins found in the basement of Oplontis, whose teeth and bones—quite remarkably—show signs of congenital syphilis. If this is the case, as scientists are beginning to think, this completely overturns what has been the consensus for centuries: that it was Columbus’s men returning from the Americas in the 1400s who first brought syphilis to Europe.

Silent Witnesses: 9 Astounding Revelations About the Bodies Discovered at the Pompeii Volcanic Explosion
Plaster cast showing a dog’s final agonizing moments. Pinterest

Pompeii doesn’t just have human bodies

One of the unique things about Pompeii (at least as far as its inhabitants go) is that it shows off a true cross-section of Roman society. There are bodies of infants just as there are bodies of the elderly; there are the remains of the stinking rich, surrounded by jewelry and coins, just as there are those of the poor, who fled Vesuvius without a single possession to whatever their name was.

There are slaves, gladiators and aristocrats. And, as you’d expect from a fully functioning town in the middle of the countryside, there are the remains of animals: specifically a small boar and a dog.

The dog is particularly disturbing. The cast captures it writhing in its last moments of agony as the pyroclastic flow thundered down the volcano, incinerating everything in its path. Strangely, CT scans have revealed it to be a dog without a bone—without any bones in fact. In their attempt to explain this, archaeologists have (rather obviously) suggested that the bones were removed from the cavity prior to the plaster being poured in. Why, however, remains a mystery.

Pompeii’s canine legacy doesn’t end here. One of the main attractions when you visit the site is the cave canem mosaic; a sign at the entrance of the House of the Tragic Poet that, when translated, gives us our first ever example of “Beware of the Dog”. And that’s not all. Visit Pompeii today, and you’ll find packs of strays mulling around the city, lured here by the promise of scraps donated by generous tourists. Unlike the tourists, these are the only living creatures in the vicinity blissfully unaware of the tragic fate of their ancestors.

 

Sources For Further Reading:

Fiorelli Method: The Last Breath of Pompeii: The Plaster Casts Technique

Slate – Imprisoned in Ash: The Plaster Citizens of Pompeii

Smithsonian Magazine – Well-Preserved Remains of Two Vesuvius Victims Found in Pompeii

The New York Times – He Died at Pompeii, but His Head Wasn’t Crushed by a Block

National Geographic Channel – Horses Found in Pompeii May Have Been Harnessed to Flee Eruption

Live Science – Mount Vesuvius Didn’t Kill Everyone in Pompeii. Where Did the Survivors Go?

Science Magazine – Medieval DNA Suggests Columbus Didn’t Trigger Syphilis Epidemic in Europe

The Conversation – Pompeii: Ancient Remains Are Helping Scientists Learn What Happens to A Body Caught In A Volcanic Eruption

History Collection – 20th Century’s Deadliest Disasters

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