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Science: Man of Pompeii

3 minute read

“Mount Vesuvius was blazing in several places … A black and dreadful cloud bursting out in gusts of igneous serpentine vapor now and again yawned open to reveal long, fantastic flames, resembling flashes of lightning, but much larger . . . Cinders fell . . . then pumice-stones too, with stones blackened, scorched and cracked by fire.”

The scene described by Pliny the Younger occurred on an August afternoon in 79 A.D. Of the more than 20,000 inhabitants in the city of Pompeii, several hundred died that day in their homes and in the streets. The rest fled toward the sea.

Last week a cast of the body of one who fled too late was being examined by Italian archaeologists at its resting place outside the Southern Gate of the city. It was the first figure of an eruption victim uncovered outside Pompeii’s walls.

Since systematic excavations began in Pompeii in 1860, diggers have uncovered within the city limits the petrified-ash shells of the bodies of some 40 victims. Formed by the gradual decay of the body inside its ash wrappings, the shells retained over the years a near-perfect negative impression of the figure they had enclosed. By a technique refined by Archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri. currently in charge of Pompeii excavations, the presence of the ash cavities is detected by cautiously tapping the ground with blunted pickaxes. When the excavators spot a hollow, they drill several holes through the stratum of ash, pour thinned plaster of Paris into the cavity. After allowing the plaster time to harden, workers can chip away the surrounding ash to uncover a cast of the eruption victim.

The victim removed last week was a strongly built man sprawling on his belly, legs wide apart, hands covering his face, neck drawn in. The minutely defined muscles of legs, arms and chest were bulging in their final death spasm. Theorized Archaeologist Maiuri: “Judging from the body’s musculature and from the fact that the man was fleeing alone, I would say that he was a workman or a servant. He waited under some shaky roof or vault, hoping that the storm of lapilli, pumice and ash would pass over. Then, in the midst of the blinding storm and blackening cinders, he attempted flight and sank deep into the growing piles of lapilli. He fought his way past the gates of the city, but once outside the walls, instead of following the steep incline of the road, he wandered exhausted and breathless, turned to go back, then fell to the ground in a spasm of asphyxiation. The falling ashes formed a sepulchre around his body.”

Encouraged by his find, Archaeologist Maiuri has already started tapping for more cavities outside Pompeii’s walls. The sepulchres of hundreds of other victims, he reasons, may lie between the city gates and the sea.

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