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Skeletons in the' Boat Houses', Herculaneum

Two Pregnant Women and their Fetuses Latest Victims of Mount Vesuvius’ Eruption

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After being buried in ash for more than 1,900 years, new victims of the devastating eruption in the Pompeii area have been discovered, including two pregnant women and their newborn or late-term fetuses. Experts suggest that the new discovery could be a “game-changer” for Roman bioarcheology.

The Catastrophic Eruption

Mount Vesuvius was responsible for the destruction of the city of Pompeii on August 24, 79 AD and is without a doubt the most famous volcanic eruption in history, even though not the deadliest one, as many people falsely tend to believe. Still, scientists have estimated that Mt. Vesuvius released thermal energy 100,000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. For the record, before the eruption of Vesuvius, there was no word for volcano. They had to come up with one right after the catastrophic eruption. The word is derived from “Vulcan," the Roman God of Fire. 

New Skeletons are Discovered

As Fox News reports , the estimates as to how many people were killed in Pompeii vary greatly, and the number has been a heated topic of debate among historians for decades. Most historians, however, will agree that at least a thousand people were buried under dozens of feet of lava in the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It might sound macabre, but the tons of ash and hot gas that killed so many of Pompeii’s citizens, are also the reason why their bodies have been so greatly preserved.

Villa Oplontis as it is today

Villa Oplontis as it is today ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

Surprisingly, the human remains of four more victims, two pregnant women and their newborn or late-term fetuses as Fox News reports , have been found among an estimated fifty others in a building in the nearby villa of Oplontis. Despite more than half of these fifty skeletons being unearthed during the mid-1980s and the others being partly uncovered in 1991, the human remains of the women and their fetuses were fully excavated only a few weeks ago. “This summer, I headed a small team that excavated the remaining skeletons and collected osteological data on all of the people who were trapped at Oplontis by the volcano,” Kristina Kilgrove, a bioarcheologist at the University of West Florida, wrote in Forbes.

Photomodel of skeletons in situ, Room 10, Oplontis B (Torre Annunziata, Italy). (Credit: N.Terrenato and M. Naglak, University of Michigan)

Photomodel of skeletons in situ, Room 10, Oplontis B (Torre Annunziata, Italy). (Credit: N.Terrenato and M. Naglak, University of Michigan)

Newly Discovered Skeletons Could be “Game-Changer”

After sitting beneath a thick layer of ash for more than 1,500 years, Pompeii was accidentally discovered in 1599 when the workers who were digging a water channel unearthed frescoes and an inscription containing the name of the city. The most decorated Italian architect of the time, Domenico Fontana, visited the site to examine the finds and unearthed a few more frescoes. Unfortunately, he was also a huge prude. He re-covered them because of the excessive sexual content of the paintings. In this way, the city became buried again (thanks to censorship) for nearly another 150 years before the king of Naples, Charles of Bourbon, ordered the proper excavation of the site during the late 1740s.

Since then, Pompeii became the center of interest for thousands of archaeologists, historians and scientists. An excited Kilgrove, however, believes that the discovery of the four new “victims” could change Roman history and add even more (cultural) prestige to Pompeii, “These newly analyzed skeletons from Oplontis are a game-changer in Roman bioarcheology, since they represent people who all died catastrophically, rather than after an illness. This means that these skeletons give archaeologists a better glimpse into what life was like for people in their prime than do cemetery burials,” she wrote in Forbes.

She goes on to explain why the skeletons of the women and their fetuses could be particularly intriguing, “While their biological relationship is not in question, their disease status and diet certainly are. If the mother suffered from an intestinal parasite or an infectious disease, did that affect the fetus as well? How will the carbon and nitrogen isotopes reflect the mother's diet of food and the fetus's ‘diet’ of maternal nutrition and energy stores? For our further research, we hope to answer questions such as these that cannot be solved through study of history and archaeology alone,” she writes in Forbes .

Vesuvius erupting at Night, (William Marlow circa 1768)

Vesuvius erupting at Night, (William Marlow circa 1768) ( Public Domain )

Only One Firsthand Account Exists

Ultimately, despite being the most famous volcanic eruption throughout the centuries, there’s only one recorded account saved that describes the catastrophic aftermath of the Mount Vesuvius eruption and it comes from Pliny the Younger. In a letter to Tacitus, Pliny describes what he experienced during the second day of the disaster:

“A dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the Earth like a flood. 'Let us leave the road while we can still see,' I said, 'or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind.' We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room. You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness forevermore.”

Top image: Skeletons in the' Boat Houses', Herculaneum ( Public Domain )

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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