Pompeii’s Secrets

Scientists are discovering how people lived and died in the ancient Roman city that was buried for centuries under the ash of Mount Vesuvius

Illustration by Mike Heath

Thousands of people fled Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 a.d.

It was more terrifying than any disaster movie. In 79 a.d., the volcano Mount Vesuvius on Italy’s western coast unexpectedly erupted. In a matter of hours, the nearby Roman city of Pompeii and its neighbor Herculaneum were buried under tons of ash and volcanic rock. An estimated 2,000 people were killed.

For 17 centuries, Pompeii stayed buried. Ever since archaeologists began uncovering  the site in the 18th century, the world has been fascinated by the unique glimpse it has given us into the ancient past.  Last year alone, more than 3 million people visited the site.

Pompeii may soon attract even more visitors. An ambitious $125 million effort sponsored by the European Union and the Italian government is unlocking more secrets of the city. The Great Pompeii Project is discovering fascinating new details about how Pompeiians lived—and how they died.

At the same time, the project’s experts are working hard to save the ancient site, which has been -threatened by centuries of both natural and human damage.

The ultimate goal, project director Massimo Osanna told National Geographic, is to reconstruct ancient Roman life “as though we have taken close-up photographs of a society 2,000 years ago.”

It was more terrifying than any disaster movie. In 79 A.D., the volcano Mount Vesuvius on Italy’s western coast unexpectedly erupted. In a matter of hours, the nearby Roman city of Pompeii and its neighbor Herculaneum were buried under tons of ash and volcanic rock. An estimated 2,000 people were killed.

For 17 centuries, Pompeii stayed buried. Archaeologists began uncovering the site in the 18th century. Ever since, the world has been captivated by the unique glimpse it has given us into the ancient past. Last year alone, more than 3 million people visited the site.

Pompeii may soon attract even more visitors. An ambitious $145 million effort is unlocking more secrets of the city. It’s sponsored by the European Union and the Italian government. The Great Pompeii Project is discovering fascinating new details about how Pompeiians lived and died.

The ancient site has been threatened by centuries of both natural and human damage. As a result, the project’s experts are working hard to save it.

The ultimate goal, project director Massimo Osanna told National Geographic, is to reconstruct ancient Roman life “as though we have taken close-up photographs of a society 2,000 years ago.”    

Jim McMahon

A City Destroyed

Pompeii was once a thriving port city and seaside resort of about 12,000 people in the heart of the Roman Empire (see map, left). The city traded with every corner of the empire. Wealthy Romans had vacation homes there. Pompeii’s streets were teeming with citizens, their slaves, and traders from all over.

So on the morning of August 24, 79 a.d., it’s likely few Pompeiians were paying attention to Mount Vesuvius, about 5 miles away. After all, the volcano hadn’t erupted in more than 1,500 years.

Around midday, Vesuvius began smoking, then shooting  flames  into  the  sky. Soon it started to tremor and eject molten rock and ash in an enormous cloud that blotted out the sun.

Pompeii was once a thriving port city and seaside resort of about 12,000 people in the heart of the Roman Empire (see map). The city traded with every corner of the empire. Wealthy Romans had vacation homes there. Pompeii’s streets were filled with citizens, their slaves, and traders from all over.

So on the morning of August 24, 79 A.D., it’s likely few Pompeiians were paying attention to Mount Vesuvius, about 5 miles away. After all, the volcano hadn’t erupted in more than 1,500 years.

Around midday, Vesuvius began smoking, then shooting flames into the sky. Soon it started to shake and eject molten rock and ash in a massive cloud that blotted out the sun. 

“Vesuvius had frozen a city at a moment in time . . . like an insect in amber.”

The writer Pliny the Younger watched from Misenum, across the Bay of Naples. “Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker,” he later wrote, “followed by bits of pumice [volcanic rock] and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames.”

By now, thousands of people were fleeing the city in panic. Those who sought shelter there didn’t have a chance. The rain of pumice gathered deadly force, causing roofs to collapse on everyone inside.

Shortly after midnight, Vesuvius exploded again, triggering a surge of ash and hot gas of up to 100 miles per hour. Pompeii and Herculaneum were completely swallowed up. 

The writer Pliny the Younger watched from Misenum, across the Bay of Naples. “Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker,” he later wrote, “followed by bits of pumice [volcanic rock] and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames.”

By now, thousands of people fled the city in panic. Those who sought shelter there didn’t have a chance. The rain of pumice gathered deadly force. It caused roofs to collapse on everyone inside.

Shortly after midnight, Vesuvius exploded again. This time, it triggered a surge of ash and hot gas of up to 100 miles per hour. Pompeii and Herculaneum were completely swallowed up.

Carlo Hermann/AFP/Getty Images

Plaster casts capture the forms of Mount Vesuvius’s victims at the moment of death.

Digging Up the Dead

As centuries passed, the locations of the old Roman towns covered by Vesuvius were lost. They became “fabled cities,” says historian John Bodel of Brown University. When workers unexpectedly uncovered part of Herculaneum in 1709, experts knew they had found these almost mythical places.

But for more than a century, most attempts to excavate the sites were done haphazardly. In 1863, the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli finally began to unearth Pompeii in a systematic way.

His findings were revelations. Covered by up to 30 feet of volcanic debris, much of Pompeii had been amazingly preserved. “Vesuvius had frozen a city at a moment in time that could be examined like an insect in amber,” says Bodel. Workers found intact loaves of bread and eggs still in their shells.

As centuries passed, the locations of the old Roman towns covered by Vesuvius were lost. They became “fabled cities,” says historian John Bodel of Brown University. Workers unexpectedly uncovered part of Herculaneum in 1709. Experts at the time immediately knew they had found these almost mythical places.

But for more than a century, most attempts to excavate the sites were done carelessly. In 1863, the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli finally began to unearth Pompeii in a systematic way.

His findings were a revelation. Covered by up to 30 feet of volcanic debris, much of Pompeii had been amazingly preserved. “Vesuvius had frozen a city at a moment in time that could be examined like an insect in amber,” says Bodel. Workers found intact loaves of bread and eggs still in their shells.

Pompeii remains the most important archaeological site in the Roman world.

The uncovering of Pompeii was “a major event in world history,” Bodel says. Its houses, shops, temples, and thousands of frescoes—paintings on plaster walls—formed the most detailed picture of an ancient Roman city ever found.

Then there were Pompeii’s dead. The volcanic matter from Vesuvius had covered many people, then hardened around them. As the victims decomposed, they left behind their skeletons inside the ghostly outlines of their bodies. Fiorelli poured plaster into those figures as if they were an artist’s molds, making casts that preserved the forms. One man curled up in a ball; another reached up to protect himself; a mother shielded her baby. These images of people at the moment of death bear haunting witness to Pompeii’s fate.

The uncovering of Pompeii was “a major event in world history,” Bodel says. Its houses, shops, temples, and thousands of frescoes (paintings on plaster walls) formed the most detailed picture of an ancient Roman city ever found.

Then there were Pompeii’s dead. The volcanic matter from Vesuvius had covered many people, then hardened around them. This formed ghostly outlines of their bodies. As the victims decomposed, they left behind their skeletons inside. Fiorelli poured plaster into those figures as if they were an artist’s molds. This made casts that preserved the forms. One man curled up in a ball; another reached up to protect himself; a mother shielded her baby. These images of people at the moment of death bear haunting witness to Pompeii’s fate.

Ciro De Luca/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Using a CT scan to look inside a plaster cast from Pompeii

New Technology

Scientists today are learning even more about the lives of Pompeii’s citizens, thanks to new technology. For example, until recently, there was no way to examine the bones that remain inside the thick plaster casts.

Now, using CT scans (highly detailed 3-D X-rays), technicians can peer into the casts, drawing a clearer picture of those people and what happened to them.

So far, the scans have revealed that Pompeiians had strong teeth, suggesting good nutrition. Hundreds of bags of ancient human waste from the city’s sewers also indicate a healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits, nuts, and fish.

In addition, the scans reveal how those Pompeiians died: from head injuries caused by falling rock or collapsing buildings.

Scientists today are learning even more about the lives of Pompeii’s citizens. These latest discoveries are thanks to new technology. For example, there was no way to examine the bones inside the thick plaster casts until recently.

Now, using CT scans (highly detailed 3-D X-rays), technicians can peer into the casts. This allows them to draw a clearer picture of those people and what happened to them.

So far, the scans have revealed that Pompeiians had strong teeth. That suggests they had good nutrition. Hundreds of bags of ancient human waste from the city’s sewers have also been recovered. They indicate a healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits, nuts, and fish.

The scans also reveal how those Pompeiians died. Fatal injuries included head trauma caused by falling rock or collapsing buildings. 

‘Crisis’ in Pompeii

Today, the site is extremely fragile.  Over the years, it has been hit by earthquakes, bombers during World War II (1939-45), and countless floods. In recent years, its buildings were in danger of crumbling after every hard rainfall.

“Pompeii faced crisis on every level,” Osanna, the director of the Great Pompeii Project, recalls. His team of 200 archaeologists, architects, and other specialists is now working to stabilize and restore the ancient site.

Pompeii is “the most important archaeological site in the Roman world,” says historian Mary Beard of the University of Cambridge. “Nowhere do we come face-to-face with [the ancient past] in quite this up-close-and-personal way.”

Pompeii has long been where “cutting-edge archaeological techniques are tried out,” Bodel adds. Such methods allow archaeologists to examine how ancient people from sites all over the globe lived.

Our evolving world also changes the way we look at Pompeii. “In the past, people were mostly fascinated by the rich,” says Steven Ellis, an archaeologist at the site. “These days, we’re asking about the 99 percent,” he says, meaning the city’s average working people.

For instance: How diverse was Pompeii? Researchers have found bodies of numerous ethnicities from as far away as present-day France. How many people came to Pompeii as slaves? What were their lives like?

Says Ellis, “There are almost endless questions.”

Today, the site is extremely fragile. Over the years, it has been hit by earthquakes, bombers during World War II (1939-45), and countless floods. In recent years, its buildings were in danger of crumbling after every hard rainfall.

“Pompeii faced crisis on every level,” Osanna, the director of the Great Pompeii Project, recalls. His team of 200 archaeologists, architects, and other specialists is now working to stabilize and restore the ancient site.

Pompeii remains “the most important archaeological site in the Roman world,” says historian Mary Beard of Cambridge University. “Nowhere do we come face-to-face with [the ancient past] in quite this up-close-and-personal way.”

Pompeii has long been where “cutting-edge archaeological techniques are tried out,” Bodel adds. Such methods allow archaeologists to examine how ancient people from sites all over the globe lived.

Our evolving world also changes the way we look at Pompeii. “In the past, people were mostly fascinated by the rich,” says Steven Ellis, an archaeologist who works at the site. “These days, we’re asking about the 99 percent,” he says, meaning the city’s average working people.

For instance: How diverse was Pompeii? Researchers have found bodies of many ethnicities from as far away as present-day France. How many people came to Pompeii as slaves? What were their lives like?

Says Ellis, “There are almost endless questions.”

G. Newman Lowrance/AP Images

Roman numerals are used to denote the Super Bowl every February.

What We Got From Rome

The ancient Romans gave us our system of government, our calendar, and many other things we take for granted

Our continuing fascination with the ancient Romans is about more than just the ruins that still dot their former territories in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Romans also invented—or helped spread—many institutions, ideas, and techniques we still use today.

Our continuing fascination with the ancient Romans is about more than just the ruins that still dot their former territories in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Romans also invented—or helped spread—many institutions, ideas, and techniques we still use today.

GOVERNMENT

In the Roman Republic* (509 b.c.-27 b.c.), citizens elected officials to represent them, government was divided into separate branches, and checks and balances were supposed to keep anyone from amassing too much power. Sound familiar? That’s no coincidence, says Christopher Bellitto, professor of history at Kean University in New Jersey. “The Founding Fathers were fascinated by the Roman Republic,” he says, “and our form of government comes directly from that republic.”

In the Roman Republic* (509 b.c.-27 b.c.), citizens elected officials to represent them, government was divided into separate branches, and checks and balances were supposed to keep anyone from amassing too much power. Sound familiar? That’s no coincidence, says Christopher Bellitto, professor of history at Kean University in New Jersey. “The Founding Fathers were fascinated by the Roman Republic,” he says, “and our form of government comes directly from that republic.”

LAW

Many modern-day legal principles originated in the Roman Republic, including the use of subpoenas, rules for questioning witnesses, property rights—and the idea that defendants are innocent until proven guilty.

Many modern-day legal principles originated in the Roman Republic, including the use of subpoenas, rules for questioning witnesses, property rights—and the idea that defendants are innocent until proven guilty.

CALENDAR

For a long time, the Roman calendar was a chaotic mess, open to interpretation by priests who manipulated the length of a year for political reasons. But in 45 b.c., Roman ruler Julius Caesar unveiled the 365-day “Julian” calendar and named July after himself. In 1582, it was slightly adjusted to become the Gregorian calendar (named for Pope Gregory XIII) that we follow today.

For a long time, the Roman calendar was a chaotic mess, open to interpretation by priests who manipulated the length of a year for political reasons. But in 45 b.c., Roman ruler Julius Caesar unveiled the 365-day “Julian” calendar and named July after himself. In 1582, it was slightly adjusted to become the Gregorian calendar (named for Pope Gregory XIII) that we follow today.

LANGUAGE

Latin, the main Roman language, is the root of modern romance languages, including French, Spanish, and Italian. It’s also the root of many English words.

Latin, the main Roman language, is the root of modern romance languages, including French, Spanish, and Italian. It’s also the root of many English words.

RELIGION

Christianity began in the Roman Empire (27 b.c.-1453 a.d.). In 312 a.d., Emperor Constantine converted, and it quickly became the dominant religion in Rome. Today, about one-third of the world’s population is Christian.

Christianity began in the Roman Empire (27 b.c.-1453 a.d.). In 312 a.d., Emperor Constantine converted, and it quickly became the dominant religion in Rome. Today, about one-third of the world’s population is Christian.

ROADS

Roman engineers built a system of roads throughout Europe that all led back to Rome. “If you dig down under most major roads in Europe, including the Autobahn, you’ll hit a Roman road,” says Bellitto. “Roman roads were the world’s first information superhighway.”

Roman engineers built a system of roads throughout Europe that all led back to Rome. “If you dig down under most major roads in Europe, including the Autobahn, you’ll hit a Roman road,” says Bellitto. “Roman roads were the world’s first information superhighway.”

ROMAN NUMERALS

Roman numerals were widely used from ancient times into the 15th century. Today, they’re still sometimes used in official documents and titles, including to denote the Super Bowl.

Carl Stoffers

 

* Rome was a Republic until 31 b.c., when it became a dictatorship under the Roman Empire.

Roman numerals were widely used from ancient times into the 15th century. Today, they’re still sometimes used in official documents and titles, including to denote the Super Bowl.

Carl Stoffers

 

* Rome was a Republic until 31 b.c., when it became a dictatorship under the Roman Empire.

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