Almost 2,000 years ago, this man ran for his life as a volcanic eruption destroyed his city. Now, archaeologists have discovered his mangled remains. But it wasn’t lava from Mount Vesuvius that killed this unfortunate resident of the Italian town of Pompeii. And now experts have unraveled his terrifying last moments.
The story began in 79 A.D., when Pompeii was at the height of its popularity. Founded over half a century earlier, the city – which was located close to where Naples is today – had become part of the Roman Republic in 89 B.C. At this point, many of the empire’s influential citizens began building villas in the area.
During the years preceding the eruption, Pompeii had grown in scale and grandeur. Indeed, vast structures such as an aqueduct and an amphitheater sprang up around the city. Meanwhile, the fertile land surrounding the settlement was put to good use producing delicacies such as olive oil and wine.
In fact, Pompeii was so prosperous that some 12,000 people were living there at its peak. However, the bustling settlement had been built in the shadow of a sleeping, yet dangerous, giant. Five miles outside the city, the volcano known as Mount Vesuvius posed a lethal threat to the inhabitants, who remained blissfully unaware.
Formed some 4.6 million years ago, Vesuvius sits at the place where Earth’s Eurasian and African tectonic plates meet. One of a number of volcanoes that make up the Campanian arc in Italy, it is considered one of the most dangerous on Earth. In fact, modern studies have shown that back in 1780 B.C., one violent eruption is known to have sent a plume of debris more than 20 miles into the air.
As modern analysis has shown, that eruption wiped out nearly every trace of civilization in a 15-mile radius. However, by the time that Pompeii was in fashion, this death and destruction had long been forgotten. And even though an earthquake shook the region in 63 A.D., people continued to live in the shadow of Vesuvius.
Then, on the morning of August 24, 79 A.D., another earthquake shook the streets of Pompeii. Beneath the surface, molten rock exerted ever-greater pressure upon this weak point in the Earth’s crust. And eventually, this force caused Vesuvius to erupt once more. At about 1 p.m. that afternoon, a huge plume of dust and ash shot into the sky above the city.
Propelled by a column of debris and gas, this cloud stretched up for over eight miles above Pompeii. In fact, it was so vast that it was spotted by witnesses 100 miles away. And not long after the eruption, the author Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the scene, described it in a typically poetic fashion.
“Its general appearance can be best described as being like an umbrella pine,” Pliny wrote, “for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and and then split off into branches.” And before long, the great cloud had spread across the skies above Pompeii, transforming day into night for the terrified citizens below.
But it wasn’t just the sudden darkness that sparked fear on the streets of Pompeii. As the airborne debris thrown skywards began to cool and gravity took effect, it fell from the sky, raining down on the city. Soon, the citizens were screaming under a downpour of rock and ash, as well as pieces of solid lava. “I believed I was perishing with the world,” Pliny wrote.
For those living in Pompeii, it must have been a terrifying ordeal. With each second that passed, the volcano spewed about 1.7 million tons of rock and ash into the air: debris that ultimately fell onto the city below. Meanwhile, the deadly column of gas and rock grew ever taller over Vesuvius, reaching almost 20 miles high within 12 hours of the eruption.
Eventually, the column grew so tall that it buckled under its own weight. And at about 2 a.m. on the morning after the eruption, this collapse caused a torrent of debris and gas to come hurtling down the side of the mountain. For anything that stood in its way, experts believe, that meant certain destruction: the wave was heated to more than 900°F.
Traveling at almost 220mph, the wave – known as a pyroclastic flow – raged perilously close to the city of Pompeii. Meanwhile, not long after the first collapse, the column above Vesuvius buckled for a second time. And in the aftermath, two more deadly pyroclastic surges began speeding towards civilization.
In Pompeii, however, the people remained unaware of the impending doom. And as dawn broke, the rain of debris and ash actually began to ease. Believing that the worst was over, some of the citizens returned to their homes, gathering the possessions that they had left behind. But sadly, this optimism would prove tragically misplaced.
At about 7:30 a.m., the column of gas and debris collapsed once more. For the fourth time, a deadly pyroclastic flow began surging down Vesuvius towards the city. But unlike the other three, this one actually reached Pompeii. And before long, the streets had disappeared beneath it.
In the hours before the pyroclastic flow hit the city, many of Pompeii’s citizens had managed to escape. But for those left behind, the deluge of molten gas and debris meant certain death. In fact, it’s believed that as many as 2,000 people died on the streets of Pompeii. And in the wider area, some 16,000 perished as a result of the eruption.
However, Pompeii was far from the only victim of Vesuvius’s deadly eruption. Located three miles closer to the volcano, the town of Herculaneum was hit by the pyroclastic flow some five hours before its sister city. And according to experts, it experienced even greater destruction as the molten gas and debris tore through the streets.
Thankfully, by that time, most residents had managed to abandon Herculaneum. But not everyone managed to escape, and at least 400 people died as the pyroclastic surge submerged the town. Today, experts believe that the force of the blast was so violent that it blew one statue almost 50 feet from its original location.
Eventually, those who had managed to escape the carnage returned to Pompeii. But when they got there, they found that little remained of their former homes. And rather than rebuild the devastated city, they chose to abandon it to its fate. For more than 1,600 years, this once-grand metropolis lay all but forgotten beneath a thick layer of ash.
However, in 1738, workmen were laying the foundations of a new palace for Charles of Bourbon, the ruler of Naples, when they stumbled upon some interesting remains. These turned out to be what was left of Herculaneum, the other town buried in the same eruption. And ten years later, excavations by Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre, a Spanish engineer, revealed what was left of Pompeii.
Amazingly, those early archaeologists discovered something incredible. Beneath the dust that had settled on the city, Pompeii remained pretty much intact. In fact, as terror had descended on its citizens thousands of years ago, the ash had a preservative effect, freezing the moment forever in time.
Apparently, the remains of Pompeii were so well preserved that many of the streets and buildings looked just as they had back in 79 A.D. Moreover, the victims’ skeletons littered the town. Indeed, the remains of their prone bodies occupied exactly the same positions that they had at the moment when the fatal onslaught struck.
Because of Pompeii’s remarkable state of preservation, the site has been a huge draw for archaeologists over the years. And as time has passed, their techniques and equipment have grown ever more sophisticated. In turn, these advances have led to even more fascinating revelations about the city and its tragic fate.
In May 2018 experts working at the Pompeii Archaeological Park announced that they had made a discomfiting discovery. In a newly excavated part of the city, they found the remains of a man who was soon dubbed the “unluckiest guy in history.” Indeed, this individual appeared to have been crushed to death while attempting to flee the eruption.
Apparently, scientists believe that the man survived the eruption, only to be killed while trying to make his escape. In fact, experts suspect that he was caught in the deadly pyroclastic flow as it descended on Pompeii. And as the molten gas and debris tore through the streets, it transformed the city into something resembling a war zone.
When archaeologists discovered these new remains, they found that they weren’t intact. Indeed, the victim’s head was missing, presumably crushed under the huge rock that was embedded in its place. At first, they theorized that the pyroclastic flow had picked up the stone and thrown it with great force towards the victim, ultimately causing his death.
“A formidable stone block (perhaps a door jamb), violently thrown by the volcanic cloud, collided with his upper body, crushing the highest part of the thorax and yet-to-be-identified head, which probably lies under the stone block,” archaeologists explained in a statement announcing the find.
Thought to have been at least 30 years old, the man was found sprawled out on the first story of a structure. And on closer examination, experts realized that his remains showed evidence of an infected leg bone. Perhaps this fact explains why he was unable to move fast enough to escape.
However, while the world’s press lamented the victim’s unfortunate death, archaeologists continued to excavate the area where his remains were found. And just one month later, they made another announcement. Apparently, the man might not have lost his life to a flying rock after all.
In fact, when they dug deeper, archaeologists discovered the man’s head, and it was surprisingly intact. Apparently, an 18th-century tunnel created during early excavations of Pompeii had collapsed. The resulting fall took the skeleton’s skull – along with its rib-cage and arms – along with it. And by the time that the remains were discovered centuries later, they had taken on a distinctly decapitated appearance.
But if an enormous flying projectile didn’t kill the man, what did? According to experts, the vast majority of deaths in Pompeii were a result, not of the eruption, but of the pyroclastic flow. And sadly, experts believe this victim probably met with a similar fate – suffocating as a result of gases reaching a terrifying 1,000°F.
In a June 2018 interview with National Geographic magazine, Benjamin Andrews from the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Project described pyroclastic flow thus, “A super-heated hurricane-force wind carrying ash and rock that can destroy anything in its path.” As a result, he said, the victim’s last moments would not have been pleasant.
But despite meeting that gruesome fate almost 2,000 years ago, the man may still have things to tell us about his death – and life. Apparently, recent excavations have also revealed that the victim died while clutching a purse full of coins to his chest. Indeed, he had enough money, it seems, to support a small family for a fortnight.
Moreover, the man’s bones show signs of damage. This gives archaeologists hope that closer study could tell them more about how the victim died. “[The bones] display some fractures, the nature of which will be identified,” explained a June 2018 statement from the Pompeii Archaeological Park. The results of those tests will hopefully allow researchers “to reconstruct the final moments in [his] life with greater accuracy.”
In fact, over the years, the bodies of unfortunate victims have allowed experts a fascinating – if gruesome – insight into the final moments of the doomed city. Less than two months earlier, for example, Massimo Osanna, the director of the Pompeii Archaeological Park, announced that his team had stumbled upon another tragic find.
This particular story began back in 2010, when Pompeii’s ancient House of the Gladiators had collapsed. Around the world, history fans were outraged at what was seen as neglect by the Italian authorities. So, in 2012, the Great Pompeii Project was launched, aiming to restore vast swathes of the city.
In April 2018 Osanna announced that archaeologists working on the project had discovered the remains of a child at Pompeii’s thermal baths. Unfinished at the time of the eruption, this grand complex was set to rival the facilities of Emperor Nero in Rome. But when Vesuvius changed the fate of the city, the incomplete building served a far more gruesome purpose.
Apparently, experts believe that the child had attempted to take shelter in the baths after the eruption, when ash and debris were falling over Pompeii. But when the deadly pyroclastic flow hit the city, the unfortunate victim suffocated. Tragically, the youngster is estimated to have been no older than eight at the time.
According to Osanna, the discovery was a significant one. “This is an extraordinary find, in an area which we thought had been fully excavated in the 19th century,” he told newspaper La Repubblica in 2018. In fact, it is the first time that archaeologists have discovered the skeleton of a child at Pompeii in half a century.
Moving forwards, experts hoped that further DNA analysis of the remains might teach them even more about the unidentified child. Indeed, as technology continues to improve, it’s possible that we may learn even more about the victims of Pompeii. And, in turn, a city that was so suddenly turned into little more than ghosts may offer up more of its long-held secrets.