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Stone block and decapitated skeleton

Decapitated Pompeii Man Was Not Killed By the Block


At the end of May, archaeologists working at Pompeii made a remarkable and grisly discovery when they unearthed the remains of a man who had apparently been decapitated by a huge rock that was thrown at him by the force of the volcanic flows from Mount Vesuvius. The gruesome discovery shocked the archaeologists who unearthed the remains and pictures of the decapitated man went viral. However, further excavation has found the skull and its condition tells a different story for the cause of death.

Destruction of Pompeii

Pompeii was a historic town located at the base of Mount Vesuvius. In August 79 AD it erupted and send lava flows upon the town and neighboring communities such as Herculaneum. Pyroclastic flows submerged the town and killed something like 30,000 people. The town was completely buried by volcanic ash and pumice and it was abandoned and over time it was forgotten until it was found in the 18 th century.

The victim is positioned lying on his back as if he turned to see the block and took it on the chin. Pompeii - Parco Archeologico

The victim is positioned lying on his back as if he turned to see the block and took it on the chin. Pompeii - Parco Archeologico

The excavations that unearthed the grisly remains are part of the Great Pompeii Project to reinforce some excavation fronts in the ancient city so that they can in time be fully restored. The discovery was made during an excavation of the area between the House of the Silver Wedding and the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto, in the north-east of the vast site. The decapitated victim is one of several exciting finds made in recent months.

The remains were close to the recently discovered Alley of Balconies , only unearthed in recent weeks according to The Local website. Last month the remains of a young child trying to seek refuge in a bath complex were discovered. And two weeks ago the cadaver of a horse was dug up.

Although human remains are a hallmark of the site, not all the recent discoveries are morbid. Excavations of a building that is being referred to as the Domus of Dolphins have uncovered some brightly colored and detailed frescoes of animals and birds including a peacock, a parrot, a partridge and dolphins.

Fresco discovered at the ‘Domus of Dolphins’ last week. (Pompeii - Parco Archeologico)

Fresco discovered at the ‘Domus of Dolphins’ last week. ( Pompeii - Parco Archeologico )

The Decapitated Victim

The victim appeared to have been killed by a 300-kilo stone block, possibly a door jamb “violently thrown by the volcanic cloud” according to The Star. It seemed to have hit his upper body and crushed his thorax and removed his head completely from his body.  The skeleton was found headless, and no skull was found nearby. The remains were protruding from the rock that appeared to have hit him and it was believed that the missing skull was located, probably crushed, under the huge stone slab. The further excavations have proved the supposed location of the skull to be correct, however assumptions regarding its condition were way off. The skull was found almost completely intact, albeit with a few fractures.

The intact decapitated skull, several vertebrae and other bones

The intact decapitated skull, several vertebrae and other bones have been found at a lower level than the rest of the skeleton. (Parco Archeologico de Pompeii )

A New Death Scenario

In the latest reports, the hypothesis of the details of this man’s death have understandably changed radically faced with the new evidence. The Pompeii Archaeological Park have provided a statement describing the new findings thus:

‘The progressing investigations into the crossroads of Vicolo delle Nozze d’Argento and Vicolo dei Balconi, where the first skeletal remains were found, have brought the upper part of the body to light, which was located somewhat lower than the lower limbs. The explanation for this stratigraphic anomaly is to be found in the presence of a tunnel, below the lying position of the body and presumably dating to the Bourbon era, whose caving-in led to the slippage and collapse of part of the upper stratigraphy, but not of the stone block, which is still located in the original stratigraphy. His death was presumably not, therefore, due to the impact of the stone block, as initially assumed, but likely to asphyxia caused by the pyroclastic flow.’

A preliminary analysis of the decapitated victim shows that he was aged between 30 and 35. It would appear, based upon observations of the individual’s skeleton that he had an infection in one of his tibia bones. This would have left him with limited mobility and when Mount Vesuvius erupted on that fateful day in 79 AD he could not flee fast enough and like so many more, perished.  The Pompeii site director stated that the find ‘ was similar to that of the remains of a limping individual’ , which was discovered some time ago.  He was unearthed in the House of the Smith and he too was believed to have died because his condition meant that he was unable to flee the fiery volcanic flows.

The victims foot seems to have suffered previous damage to his left foot. (Pompeii - Parco Archeologico)

The victims foot seems to have suffered previous damage to his left foot. ( Pompeii - Parco Archeologico )

A Desperate End

These new conclusions would point to this man suffering a similar death to the majority of the Pompeii victims – being overcome by fumes and dust and suffocating. A less exicting end perhaps, but no less horrific way to go. Now that the researchers have got their hands on the skull further examinations will be conducted in order to ascertain what might be the full details of the demise of this individual on that tragic day.

Top image: Remains of the man decapitated by a stone discovered ay Pompeii. Source: Parco Archeologico de Pompeii .

By Ed Whelan

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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