Ancient History 14 Bizarre Things Most People Don't Know About The Bodies Preserved At Pompeii  

Andy Miller
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In 79 CE, volcanic Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii, Italy. Hidden from the world beneath pumice and ash, it was all but forgotten for nearly 1,500 years. That all changed in 1738 when the site was discovered, preserved beneath the dust and debris. In 1863, Italian archeologist Guiseppe Fiorelli took charge of the site and began proper excavation of it. Fiorelli recognized that the soft ashes on the site were actually cavities left from the dead, and he is responsible for filling them with high-grade plaster. Thus, the preserved bodies of Pompeii were born. Nearly 150 years later, strange facts about the bodies are coming to light thanks to CT scans and modern science. Among the many things most folks don't know about Pompeii is likely the fact that the bodies themselves, more than almost any other existing artifacts, provide archeologists with vital information about what life was like in the ancient city. Now, take a look at these little known Pompeii facts.

The Plaster Bodies Are Full Of Bones

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Photo: Dave & Margie Hill/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

To create the preserved bodies at Pompeii, Guiseppe Fiorelli and his team poured plaster of Paris into soft cavities in the ash, which were around 30 feet beneath the surface. These cavities were actually the outlines of the bodies, and they retained their forms despite the soft tissue decomposing over time. When the plaster was poured into the ash, it filled in the spaces formerly occupied by the soft tissue.

A common misconception is that the plaster bodies are empty. However, the cavities left by the bodies were not shells in the ash waiting for the plaster. In fact, they were soft spots that still held the bones of the cadavers. When the plaster filled the soft ash, the bones were enclosed. The bodies of Pompeii are even more lifelike than they appear.

The Pompeians Had Excellent Home Dental Care

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Photo: Daniele Florio/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

In 2015, archeologists began using CT scans to analyze the bodies at Pompeii. One of the most remarkable finds in the CT scans is that the Pompeians had amazing teeth. Pompeii was buried thousands of years before the advent of anything that even closely resembles modern dentistry. Yet, not a single cavity has been discovered in the bodies. At first glance, this is shocking, but it actually makes quite a bit of sense. Mount Vesuvius erupted before processed sugar was invented. The Roman diet was high in fiber, protein, and fruits, and it was extremely low in sugar. This diet, combined with the high levels of flourine in the local air and water, made for mouths free of cavities. 

Children Had Syphilis

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Photo: Fer.filol/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In 1st century Pompeii, surviving until the age of 10 would have been a feat; childhood was incredibly deadly due to infectious diseases and a lack of appropriate treatments. Because disease leaves its marks on bones, archeologists have insight into some of the most lethal and common causes of mortality among the children of Pompeii. And syphilis ranks among these causes of early death. There are tell-tale signs on the bones of a pair of young male twins that point to congenital syphilis. This means syphilis was introduced to Europe over 1,000 years before Columbus's fateful voyage – the thing to which syphilis in Europe had previously been attributed.  

The Casual Positions Of The Bodies Indicate How People Might've Died

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Photo: Leandro Neumann Ciuffo/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

Some of the Pompeii bodies were found in the fetal position. The same position is a common consequence of suffocation deaths, so, as a result, it was initially assumed that they died suffocating from the hot gasses that roared through the city. Scientists also know that raining pumice caused roof collapses that killed some who opted to remain indoors. However, many other bodies were also discovered in relatively casual positions – appearing as if no death preparations had been made by the victims at all. This casualness has led some scientists to reason that the unbelievably high temperatures of the eruption instantaneously killed the Pompeians, as opposed to prolonged suffocation by the ash.