Vesuvius Victim Died Just Steps From the Safety of the Sea, Skeleton Shows

The middle-aged man’s remains are the first of their kind found at Herculaneum in 25 years

A skeleton lying half-encased in dirt and mud
Researchers found the remains of a man in his mid-40s at Herculaneum, a Roman town near Pompeii. Courtesy of the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum

Italian archaeologists have discovered the remains of a man killed by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 C.E. The victim, a man in his mid-40s, died on the beaches of Herculaneum while fleeing the volcano’s deadly blast of heat, ash, rock and debris, reports Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata (ANSA).

Found mere steps away from where the sea once met the shore, the ancient Roman spent his final moments clutching a small satchel that may have contained his prized possessions, writes Elisabetta Povoledo for the New York Times. Researchers have yet to fully determine its contents, but initial studies suggest the bag held a wooden box and a small iron or bronze ring.

Herculaneum was smaller and wealthier than its better-known southern neighbor, Pompeii. The city of about 5,000 residents once boasted luxurious vacation homes for Roman senators and lushly decorated villas.

A shot of the skeleton's head, still half-buried at this stage
Researchers suspect that a 34-foot-long wooden plank discovered near the remains fell and crushed the man's skull.  Courtesy of the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum

Per the Times, the discovery is the first of its kind made at Herculaneum in roughly 25 years. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, archaeologists excavating part of the city’s ancient shoreline discovered the remains of more than 300 individuals who unsuccessfully sought shelter from the eruption in a fisherman’s storerooms. (Vesuvius’ blast killed an estimated 2,000 people in Pompeii and Herculaneum.)

Archaeologists with the Herculaneum Conservation Project and the Italian culture ministry embarked on the new round of excavations earlier this year. Park administrators hope to eventually connect the ancient coastline to Herculaneum’s famed Villa of the Papyri, making the beachfront available to tourists by 2024, reports Graziella Melania Geraci for the Art Newspaper.

The partially mutilated remains speak to the Vesuvius victim’s painful death and the force of the volcano’s explosion.

During the dig, researchers spotted the man’s legs jutting out from the base of an 85-foot-tall lava stone wall. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, an archaeologist at Cambridge University and a former director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, tells NBC News’ Patrick Smith and Katrina Lau that a previous excavation accidentally cut off the skeleton’s feet—“a bit like finding a mafia killing.”

A close up of a cluster of dirt and material shows a small ring shape and the faint outlines of a satchel
The fleeing man died while clutching a small satchel that held a wooden box with a small metal ring. Courtesy of the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum

The team suspects that a 34-foot-long carbonized wooden beam discovered near the body fell and crushed his skull. Several of the man’s limbs also bear heat-induced fractures. Francesco Sirano, director of the Herculaneum archaeological park, tells ANSA that the skeleton’s bright-red coloring comes from “the mark of the stains left by the victim’s blood.”

As Franz Lidz wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2019, Mount Vesuvius likely erupted on a fall day, not in August, as researchers previously thought. The blast sent ash and volcanic rock raining down on Pompeii; Herculaneum’s residents, meanwhile, succumbed to a pyroclastic surge—clouds of ash, rock and volcanic gas that “move at hurricane velocities and have temperatures of several hundred degrees Celsius,” according to the United States Geological Survey.

“The remains of victims [at Herculaneum] have been found in a similar condition to those of Hiroshima,” Domenico Camardo, an archaeologist with the Herculaneum Conservation Project, tells the Guardian’s Angela Giuffrida. “You really get a sense of the horror and tragedy.”

Archaeologists plan to move the newly discovered skeleton to a laboratory to study the individual’s remains in greater detail.

“Today it’s possible to do some kinds of analysis that 20, 30 years ago it wasn’t possible to do,” dig team member Pier Paolo Petrone, an anthropologist at the University Federico II in Naples, tells the Times. “For instance, we are studying the DNA of these people. We will tell the story of these people. Herculaneum is an open book.”

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