Friday, October 31, 2008

Herculaneum: Fleeing the Eruption

 When Mount Vesuvius erupted on August 24 in the year 79, Herculaneum had a population of about 5000 according to most historians. Since the entire city has not yet been excavated, that is a rough guess based on the size of the area where it sits and the size of the amphitheater. Excavations turned up practically no bodies until 1982 when the waterfront area was excavated. Almost all of the skeletons found in the city were found in the boat houses, shown in this first photo. Others were found along the beach which would have been in the foreground.
 Apparently the residents did what I would have done. If the volcano is erupting inland, I would run for the ocean and attempt to flee by boat. There is no way of telling how many people successfully did this, but we can determine how many people did not make it. We didn't get to tour the boat houses but from internet searches, it appears that many of the skeletons are still there (note in the first photo that some of the boat houses have tarps over their entrance). One of the skeletons found on the beach included one that has been dubbed The Ring Lady. As can been seen in this photo, she had an emerald and a ruby ring on her fingers when she collapsed on the beach.
In addition, she had a purse which contained two gold bracelets with serpentine heads that met as well as two gold earrings that probably held pearls. These were likely her prize possessions that she was attempting to take with her.

Here is a close-up of the rings. Examination of her body shows that she was a tall 45 year old woman in good health with good teeth but a bit of gum desease. She was likely knocked down by the pyroclastic blast and died immediately.

Another skeleton found on the beach was of a Roman soldier who collapsed, his fists clutching the sand. Every bone in his body except his inner ear was broken suggesting that he too was hit forcefully by the surge and knocked to the ground. He was about 37 years old, wore a sword and bone-handled dagger by his side and had a bag of carpenter's tool on his back. Soldiers often worked in that trade. Fifteen silver coins and three gold coins were found near him, likely originally held in a cloth moneybag.

Anthropologist Sara Bisel examined the body and found that he had probably been a warrior for quite some time. He was missing three front teeth (missing six teeth in total), had a mark on this thighbone where a prior wound had healed, and had thick well developed thighbones likely from frequent bareback horse riding as was common among soldiers of the era.
Roman soldier skeletons are a very rare find since the Romans usually cremated their dead. Note I did not take the photos of the Ring Lady, as she has long since been removed from the Herculaneum beach.

















4 comments:

Gwen Buchanan said...

I have always been interested in archeology.. and palaeontology.. anything to do with digging up the past , examining it, figuring out what happened...

J, what a disaster this was.. people fleeing for there lives and not knowing what else to do.. terrifying...

Thanks!! ..

Sweetypie said...

Pompeii and Herculaneum greatly interest me even though I pity Ring Lady and Soldier guy.

Emily Hayes said...

Do you know where the Ring Lady was removed to? Whereabouts is she now?

Anonymous said...

Emily, most likely her remains ended up at the Naples National Archaeological Museum.