Striking casts of Pompeii's unfortunate citizens
Striking casts of Pompeii's unfortunate citizens

5 Things You Didn't Know About Pompeii's Human Remains

Perhaps the most exciting discoveries are the most gruesome. The new excavations in Pompeii have revealed more bodies than have been found in decades and have done so just when modern technologies have developed, which allows us to study the lives of individuals through their skeletal remains.

What makes the Vesuvian bodies crucial is that a range of individuals who didn’t die of natural causes have been uncovered, meaning that archaeologists can study a pool of ordinary, healthy people.

The incredible find in February 2019 of a seven or eight-year-old child in the Central Baths, a site that was thoroughly excavated in the 19th century, emphasises just how much archaeology has developed. Where archaeologists in the 19th century presumably left the skeleton in situ because they couldn’t make a good plaster cast of it, modern archaeologists have exhumed the skeleton because of the wealth of information it can provide.


1) In times of crisis, people stick together

While we await the results of the osteoarchaeological studies of the skeletons, what this moving collection of bodies reveals is that people, in times of crisis, like to congregate with others close to them. The same phenomenon has been seen many times over in Pompeii, famously in the House of Julius Polybius, but also in Oplontis.

At the site of Oplontis B, 54 individuals were found huddled in one room on the ground floor, although interestingly appeared to have separated themselves into two groups based on social status.

2) Citizens died gruesomely but quickly

Rather more has been revealed about the bodies discovered in the ancient warehouses of Herculaneum in a study from 2018, carried out by Pierpaolo Petrone – a palaeobiologist at the Federico II University Hospital in Naples. Using ICP-MS and Raman miscrospectroscopy, Petrone identified the red and black residues found on the Herculaneum bones, skulls and artefacts as blood that had vaporised, along with other internal bodily fluids, as a result of the extreme heat from the pyroclastic flow that overwhelmed Herculaneum.

Examining the cracks in the skeletons and skulls, Petrone concluded that the brains and bodily fluids of the victims had boiled, causing the skeletons to crack, the skull caps to explode and fluids to escape. This demonstrates, in graphic terms, how the citizens of Herculaneum died – of fulminant shock, rather than from asphyxiation. Small comfort can be gained from the fact that the people would have been killed faster than their reaction times would have registered consciousness – ultimately, they died before they knew it.

3) The lives of those lost are being explored

The Oplontis Project, led by John R. Clarke and Michael L. Thomas of the University of Texas, uses anthropological, isotopic and DNA studies in order to get a better picture of the lives of ordinary people, including their diets and pathologies.

Their findings so far have suggested that many victims from Oplontis were related (on the basis of dental and skeletal similarities) and that the victims were generally well off. Interestingly, the people found at Oplontis seem to have not suffered from anaemia and appeared to have had balanced diets, although the teeth of some of the children indicate periods of hunger.

This study’s work with 3D photogrammetry has brought some of these individuals to life. One
of the most moving examples is that of a young woman, who survived a cranial blunt trauma and was 36 weeks pregnant at the time of the eruption, the tiny bones of her foetus having almost all been found entirely reconstructed.

4) Recovered artefacts hint at the beliefs and interests of Pompeiian women

Amulets and jewellery found in the House of the Garden in 2019 offer a tantalising glimpse into the world view of Pompeiian women. The finds include two mirrors, some glass beads, as well as a number of pendants in the shape of little phalluses, closed fists, skulls and scarabs, which were originally enclosed in a wooden box that has since disintegrated. The inclusion of scarabs and Harpocrates underlines the popularity of Egyptian cults in this trading town, while the amulets, as a whole, appear to be apotropaic good luck charms.

5) Evidence of guilds

Pompeii was a city full of guilds, such as fullers and silversmiths, which voted in blocks and even provided communal burials for some of their members. Citizens would have identified themselves through their work and their tombs were decorated with work tools. Two designs on opus signinum floors (a type of simple and roughly patterned pavement used in Roman antiquity) in the House of Orion, found in 2019, may shed light into the guild of the surveyors in Pompeii.

One depiction may represent a groma, a surveying instrument comprising a vertical pole upon which four arms were fixed that had plumb lines falling from them, which was used to provide straight lines and right angles. The depiction on the floor is one of five parallel lines next to a circle, which appears to be placed on a pole. Another opus signinum floor depicts a square within a circle dissected by two lines. I have never seen these designs on floors and I think they are meant to represent something in particular. I do think that these may well be depicting tools of the surveyors’ trade and that the owner of this house may be simply advertising his work. I do believe these designs show how important work was in relation to defining who Pompeiians thought they were.

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5 Things You Didn't Know About Pompeii's Human Remains was published on 19 October 2021