Skeletons found in Pompeii show deaths by earthquake, not just Vesuvius’ eruption

Two newly discovered skeletons found at the doomed Roman town of Pompeii show that the most famous volcanic eruption of the ancient world also posed a less well-known threat: earthquakes.

The Italian Cultural Ministry on Tuesday unveiled the bodies of two men, both probably in their 50s, who died in an earthquake triggered by the cataclysmic volcanic eruption at Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The bodies were found covered in masonry from a collapsed wall — further examination showed they were killed by the impact, their bones crushed.

“Modern excavation techniques help us to better understand the inferno that completely destroyed the city of Pompeii over two days, killing many inhabitants,” said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, a German archaeologist and director of Pompeii Archaeological Park.

The eruption lasted for more than 24 hours and unleashed the power of many thousands of nuclear bombs on the surrounding Roman towns and communities.

Pyroclastic surges — where hot ash and lava rushes down the side of a volcano like an avalanche traveling at more than 50mph — destroyed almost everything in their path.

So fierce was this wall of destruction that ash fragments were found between the bones of the two men’s bodies, according to cutting edge scientific methods that can determine the process of events leading up to a death to the victim’s final seconds.

But the new methods show that the pair were likely two of many people in the area killed by devastating earthquakes that hit alongside the eruption from Vesuvius.

Zuchtriegel and other archeologists wrote in an online journal, “Park Archeological of Pompeii,” that they had to remove layers upon layers of lapilli, small fragments of ash and volcanic material, to find the bodies. Ash and rock fragments are estimated to have fallen at a rate of 220 lbs per 10 square feet, for 18 hours, they said.

The dig team excavating the Insula dei Casti Amanti, or House of Chaste Lovers, also found eight Roman containers, amphorae, leaning against a well, exactly where they were left nearly 2,000 years ago.

Pompeii, about 14 miles southeast of modern-day Naples, was home to about 13,000 people. Both Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum were seaside resorts favored by wealthy Romans and both were left in ruin.

Where the two men were discovered was not, however, a grand palace but an ordinary place undergoing renovations days after a previous earthquake in a period well-known for intense seismic activity.

“This house was not particularly luxurious, it was more of a workplace with many objects such as amphorae, cooking pots, and they were doing lime work,” Zuchtriegel said.

“There were amphorae with water used to plaster the walls. We see a city here in a transformation that was trying to recover but then with the eruption everything is crushed in just two days of hell.”

Archaeologists estimate that much of the buildings and bodies enveloped by Vesuvius in 79 AD are still buried and undiscovered.

The Pompeii site wasn’t rediscovered until the 16th century and has since become a major tourist spot — a European Union-funded project worth $115 million is ongoing to uncover more of its secrets.

“The discovery of these two skeletons shows us that we still need to study a lot, do more excavations to bring out everything that is still [hiding] in this immense treasure,” Italian Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano said in a statement.

Earlier this year an opulent house in Pompeii was unveiled after 20 years of restoration. In 2020 archaeologist uncovered the Roman equivalent of a fast food joint: a frescoed termopolium, or hot drinks counter, which would have catered to wealthy tourists.

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