These Two Ancient Pompeii Victims Died in an Earthquake—Not a Volcanic Eruption

Archaeologists have found the bodies of two men who perished in the days before Mount Vesuvius erupted

Site of the discovery
Bone fractures suggest that structural damage killed the two Pompeii residents. Pompeii Archaeological Park / Italian Minister of Culture

The name Pompeii conjures up images of pyroclastic flows and volcanic ash: When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 C.E., the disaster left buildings, bodies and artifacts frozen in time. The Roman city became a treasure trove for researchers, and even today it continues to reveal its secrets.

But when Italian archaeologists recently uncovered the bodies of two men, they realized that they were killed not by the volcano but by the disaster that immediately preceded it.

“In recent years, we have realized there were violent, powerful seismic events that were happening at the time of the eruption,” says Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of Pompeii Archaeological Park, according to the Associated Press.

Per a statement from Pompeii Archaeological Park, the victims probably died when a building collapsed around them. They were both at least 55.

Human remains
Until now, human remains hadn't been found at Pompeii since 2020. Pompeii Archaeological Park / Italian Minister of Culture

The relationship between earthquakes and volcanoes is complex. As Wired’s Erik Klemetti wrote in 2015, magma movements can cause several different kinds of earthquakes—but they tend to be small, often passing unnoticed.

The Pompeii earthquake, however, caused devastating damage. The newly discovered skeletons showed signs of bone fracturing, indicating that “the men probably died as a result of multiple injuries sustained as the building they sought refuge in caved,” as the Guardian’s Angela Giuffrida and Jude Dunhill write. Researchers think that one of the men raised an arm to protect himself from the falling stone.

The earthquake likely hit before the eruption began in earnest. Once started, the destruction went on for two days.

Until the recent discovery, human remains hadn’t been found at the site since 2020, when a team uncovered the skeletons of a wealthy man and an enslaved individual at a villa in the city’s outskirts. Researchers think that the two were trying to escape the destruction and managed to evade the initial layer of ash, but were killed by a blast the next day.

Beyond human remains, many other recent discoveries have been made at the site, including several ancient homes. Earlier this year, Vesuvius became the center of a contest offering $1 million to anyone who can invent new ways to use artificial intelligence to decipher scrolls buried in the eruption. Some smaller prizes were issued in April, and the contest will continue through the rest of the year. 

Much of Pompeii has not yet been excavated. As technology improves, researchers are able to gain even more insights into the ancient city. For many of them, the scale of the disaster strikes a chord.

“The discovery is very grounding as they are effectively digging up human beings, which is sad,” says Zuchtriegel, per the Guardian. “Human mortality is so fragile.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.