by Richard H. Armstrong

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Today, CSI Herculaneum. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Like Pompeii, Herculaneum was a Roman city wiped out by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. The story of its destruction is different, however. During the initial phase of eruption, winds carried ash and pumice over Pompeii for many hours, burying the town in over two meters of material. Herculaneum, though closer to the volcano, escaped this rain of debris for almost a day, giving the residents plenty of time to assess the danger. Initially, few human remains were found at Herculaneum. So it was assumed that the population had wisely escaped.

The Ring Lady (named for the rings still on her fingers), one of the first skeletons publicized from the find at Herculaneum
The Ring Lady (named for the rings still on her fingers), one of the first skeletons publicized from the find at Herculaneum (Wikipedia)

Then in 1982, a grisly discovery was made. Along what was then the waterfront, piles of remains were found on the beach and in large vaulted chambers. Gradually evidence emerged that over 300 people died en masse while waiting to escape by sea. And much of the site remains to be excavated. There may be hundreds more still to discover. How did this happen?

The answer lies in the second phase of the eruption. As the volcano spent its fuel, the vast cloud it created began to collapse, causing deadly pyroclastic surges and flows. The first surge raced down at a hundred feet per second. It blasted the people on the beach with a cloud superheated to 750° F. At such temperatures, body tissues practically vaporize and the brain boils. From their postures, we can tell they died instantly. After the surge came the flow, burying them with heavier volcanic material.

Now, unlike the victims of Pompeii, these were lying below the water table. The fine volcanic material was moist, and fully enveloped them. The water was pH balanced, so the bones were well preserved. The result of this terrible event was an archeologist's dream: a significant sample of an ancient population, men, women, and children, who all died of the same causes at the same time. This can yield information you can't get from a cemetery, where people are buried over a long period. The skeletons were still fully articulated and just as they died.

So physical anthropologists have pored over these remains to see what we can learn. They were as tall as their modern compatriots, well fed in youth, and had robust immune systems. There is no real evidence of lead poisoning—setting to rest an old theory of Roman decline. But rib lesions reveal lung inflammation affected people of all ages. This might be on account of particulates inhaled through the use of oil lamps and wood fires. Skull depressions show many of them were routine head-scratchers; this means they were lousy, poor things. Their teeth had fewer cavities than ours—sugar was unknown to them. Dental wear shows some used their teeth at work, most likely as fishermen, mending their nets.

Vesuvius as seen from the Forum of Pompeii (Photo by Richard Armstrong)
Vesuvius as seen from the Forum of Pompeii. (Photo by Richard Armstrong)

Inventive minds get carried away at times. Identifying some bones as those of a soldier, a boxer, or a prostitute may be a leap beyond the evidence. But the fact that the bones were discovered so recently ensures that this will be a scientific discussion. We know how they died; but we're finding out more and more how they lived.

I'm Richard Armstrong, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Notes and references:

Capasso, Luigi. I fuggiaschi di Ercolano: paleobiologia delle vittime dell'eruzeione vesuviana del 79 d. C. Bretschneider, 2001. [Very detailed analysis of the site and the remains by an eminent paleopathologist.]

Dobbins, John J. and Pedar W. Foss, eds. The World of Pompeii. Routledge, 2007.

Gore, Rick. "The Dead Do Tell Tales." National Geographic Magazine 165.5 (May 1984):557-613. [One of the first articles on the remains, it features physical anthropologist Sara Bisel, who was contracted by National Geographic to work on the skeletons. Under pressure to make the work more accessible, Bisel made many personal characterizations of individual skeletons that have sense been questioned, even though her work is still championed as pioneering.]

Judge, Joseph. "Buried Roman Town Gives Up Its Dead." National Geographic Magazine 162.6 (December 1982): 687-692. [The magazine's first article on the site, which it helped to investigate. See Gore above.]

Lazer, Estelle. Resurrecting Pompeii. Routledge, 2009. [A more conservative look at the remains piled up at Pompeii, with reflections on Sara Bisel's initial conclusions for Herculaneum.]

This episode first aired on July 21, 2014.