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.
The Plaster Bodies Are Full Of Bones
To create the preserved bodies at Pompeii, Fiorelli and his team poured plaster into soft cavities in the ash, which were about 30 feet beneath the surface. These cavities were the outlines of bodies, and they retained their forms despite the soft tissue decomposing over time.
The plaster filled in the spaces formerly occupied by soft tissue.
A common misconception is that the plaster bodies are empty. But the cavities the bodies left 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.
- Photo: Fer.filol / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
They Reveal Children Had Syphilis
Surviving until the age of 10 in Pompeii would have been a feat as children often died from infectious diseases and lack of proper treatment. Diseases leave their mark in the enamel of teeth, so archeologists have insight into some of the most common causes of death among the children of Pompeii. Syphilis ranks among the top.
There are tell-tale signs on the bones of a pair of young male twins that point to congenital syphilis.
Although many scientists previously believed that Columbus and his sailors brought syphilis back to Europe after sailing to America, this proves the disease existed in Europe more than 1,000 years before then.
The Bodies Might Show The Social Hierarchy Of Pompeii
Modern researchers have found skeletons at Pompeii that might indicate the social status of those who perished. In November 2020, archaeologists found the remains of two men inside a side room of a cryptoporticus (a covered gallery) below a villa at the excavation site Civita Guiliana just northwest of Pompeii. One skeleton, of a young man about 18 to 25 years old, revealed “a series of vertebral compressions, unusual in a young man of his age,” suggesting that he had been doing hard labor and could have been an enslaved person. The second man, thought to be from 30 to 40 years old, was found with the remains of intricate clothing, including a tunic and mantle made of wool, that suggest he could have been a wealthy man.
A group of 54 bodies found in the basement storeroom of an agricultural depot is also of interest. Although the victims hunkered down together in the space, they also arranged themselves along clearly divided lines. On one side of the room, the bodies were loaded with gold, jewels, and other signs of wealth. On the other, the people had no possessions. Although scientists aren't certain about what this means, there are several possible explanations for the arrangement. Some people could've picked up their possessions and tried to run from the disaster. Or maybe half of the people in the room were criminals who stole things on their way to hide. But it's also possible the people arranged themselves according to social status.
The Casual Positions Of The Bodies Indicate How People Might've Died
Researchers discovered some of the Pompeii bodies in the fetal position. It's a common sign of suffocation, so many experts assume the victims died when hot gasses roared through the city. Scientists also know that raining pumice caused roof collapses that killed Some Pompeians who remained indoors.
But excavators also discovered bodies in relatively casual positions. This led some scientists to believe that incredibly high temperatures from the eruption killed the Pompeians, not prolonged suffocation by ash.
Some Of Their DNA Survived, In One Case Revealing Spinal Tuberculosis
In 2022, researchers announced that, for the first time, they had sequenced the complete genome of someone who perished at Pompeii. Scientists extracted DNA from bones at the base of the skeleton of an adult male and an adult female found at Casa del Fabbro ("House of the Craftsman"). They were able to fully study the male sample; the female DNA did not provide enough information for complete analysis.
The researchers, who published their results in Scientific Reports, found that the man probably had spinal tuberculosis, a common illness at the time, and the woman likely suffered from osteoarthritis.
Anthropologist Serena Viva, one of the study's co-authors, told The Guardian that the couple's afflictions might explain why their remains were discovered in their home: Perhaps they “waited for it all to finish, maybe in the security of their home, compared to other victims who were fleeing and whose remains were found in open spaces.”
How did the DNA survive all this time? According to the scientists, the "pyroclastic materials that covered the remains" might have provided protection from oxygen and other elements that harm DNA.
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.