• Tastes Of History

Pompeii, Bodies and Assumptions

Updated: May 5

Last year, on Saturday November 21st, 2020, the Italian culture ministry announced to the world’s media that archaeologists have discovered the exceptionally well-preserved remains of two men scalded to death by the volcanic eruption that destroyed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii in AD 79. Unsurprisingly this led to usual flurry of media stories.

Those shown are only a small sample but all have one thing in common: all pronounced the younger man was a "slave". He may well have been, but that is a bold claim. So, we thought we would read the news releases and gather the evidence, What quickly becomes apparent is that each media outlet is simply rewording a single press release from the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. So, despite the appearance of multiple sources, the presented evidence is, well, uncorroborated.

The new find is located in Civita Giuliana, about 686 metres (750 yards) northwest of Pompeii’s city walls. Being on private property, government-commissioned excavations only began at the villa in 2017, when archaeologists stepped in to help prevent looters from tunnelling into the site and stealing artefacts. During this latest series of excavations the two bodies were found. It is likely that the victims were seeking refuge from the inundation of ash and pumice resulting from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. At about 9 o'clock on that fateful morning, the two were caught in the pyroclastic current of superheated volcanic debris that swept through the town, Their clenched feet and hands - the "pugilists stance" [1] - clearly demonstrates how the men died.

The intense heat destroyed soft tissue, but the men's teeth and bones were preserved. The subsequent voids left by the soft tissue was filled with plaster, left to harden, and then excavated to reveal the outline of their bodies. Examination of the resulting plaster casts has allowed researchers to evaluate the clues. The researchers believe the figures are those of a young slave and a richer older man, presumed to be his owner, based on the vestiges of clothing and their physical appearance. One of the men is described as aged between 30 and 40, and of "high-status". This assessment seems to be based on his "stronger" bone structure, particularly around his chest area, and that he was wearing a tunic and had traces of a woollen cloak under his neck. The stronger build might be indicative of a better diet but that is speculative at best; there is no guarantee that both men did not have access to similar food. As to his clothing, he is wearing garments typical of most Roman men in the first century AD. The cloak, for example, is sensible outer wear for someone contemplating or attempting to escape the town. So, the only way to link his apparel to a "higher-status" would be by analysis of the weave to show it was of finer quality. This, however, has either not happened, perhaps because the casting does not provide the necessary detail, or the results have yet to be made public. There is no suggestion that the actual material survived.

It was revealed that the younger man was probably aged between 18 and 25. Like the older man, he too is thought to have been wearing a pleated tunic, possibly made of wool. Again, it would be extremely difficult to determine the younger man's status based on his clothing. However, it was noted that he exhibited several compressed vertebrae, and it is this observation that seems to be the only reason the experts to believe he was a manual labourer or slave. Both explanations are clearly plausible, but neither can be definitively proven. One could speculate that by being a labourer he may have been susceptible to just such a back injury. Certainly, osteoarchaeologists note that repetitive manual tasks, performed over time, often result in identifiable skeletal joint wear. Equally, of course, it may have been an accidental injury. The point is that neither of these simple premises lead to a conclusion that he was a "slave". The honest answer is that we will never truly know who these two men were or their relationship. But that does not sell the story.


1. The "pugilists stance" is typically seen in severely burned bodies and characterised by flexion of elbows, knees, hips and neck, and clenching of hands into fists. This is caused by high-temperatures from fires, resulting in muscle stiffening and shortening.

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