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

Updated August 17, 2021 3.2m views15 items

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. But that changed in 1738 when excavation workers discovered the site preserved beneath dust and debris.

In 1860, Italian archeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the site and began a proper excavation. Fiorelli recognized 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, modern science revealed strange facts about the bodies thanks to CT scans. New archaeological discoveries like this are constantly refining our beliefs about the ancient world.

Among the many things most folks don't know about Pompeii is 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. Take a look at these little-known Pompeii facts.

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  • Photo: Idéfix / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The Bodies Show Signs Of The Pyroclastic Surge Death Wave

    Many experts believe that, after the initial wave of falling pumice and debris, whipping heat tornadoes washed over the city and instantly killed everyone in the way. This natural phenomenon is called a pyroclastic surge.

    According to this theory, the victims in the fetal position didn't end up that way because of a slow and drawn-out death. Instead, they're in what's called "extreme cadaveric spasm," when the body's muscles instantly contract from extreme dehydration. 

    Crack patterns in the skeletons lend further proof to the theory that Pompeians died from incredible heat. 

  • Photo: Snapshots Of The Past / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    They Hint We Might Be Wrong About When Vesuvius Erupted

    Based on the account of Roman author Pliny the Younger, experts have long agreed that Mount Vesuvius erupted in August of 79 CE. However, there is alternative evidence that throws this assumption for a loop.

    After careful clothing analysis, archeologists now posit the volcano might have erupted months later in the fall of that year. That's because many of the fiber remains are indicative of heavier autumn attire than summer clothes.

  • Photo: Claus Ableiter / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Contemporary CT Scans Are Correcting Old Assumptions About The Bodies

    People during the Victorian era loved a good drama. So when Fiorelli's team began piecing together the story of Pompeii, many people created stories for the bodies based on misleading evidence. There's the pregnant woman who was consumed by hot ash and the embracing lovers known as the "Two Maidens."

    But modern CT scans have debunked some of the most dearly held of these totally unfounded tales.

    That poor pregnant woman wasn't pregnant, and she probably wasn't a she at all. The "Two Maidens" were both men, and we'll probably never know the true nature of their relationship. The Victorian stories for the figures are compelling, but they're far from accurate.

  • Photo: Lancevortex / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    They Prove Pompeii Was As Diverse As Modern Day New York City

    There's a body at Pompeii that's come to be known as "Celt from Gaul" because of its unusually tall height and unique manner of dress. That suggests the man could've come from somewhere north of Pompeii. For a long time, many assumed the man was a slave captured by the Romans. 

    But now we know that might not be the case.

    In the 1st century, Pompeii was an important trade city where merchants from across the Mediterranean lived and worked. Experts have used bone analysis to determine the genetic makeup of Pompeii, and many agree the diversity was similar to modern cities like New York City and London. People from Greece, Gaul, and other surrounding Mediterranean countries comprised the population.