Two skeletons just unearthed in Roman Pompeii unlock ancient earthquake mystery

Archaeologists excavating ancient Pompeii have found two skeletons that appear, counterintuitively, to have died as a result of a powerful earthquake, not the volcano. The pair were found buried under a collapsed wall, which the team believe collapsed as the ground shook in response to the movement of magma beneath Vesuvius. They were then preserved in the ashfall from the eruption, which blanketed the Roman town in as much as 19 feet of volcanic material.

According to the researchers, analysis of the skeletons indicates that they were both older men, of at least 55 years of age.

They were found in the insula (essentially “city block”) of the Casti Amanti (“Chaste Lovers”) — so named after a painting in a triclinium (dining room) found in the block depicting a banquet at which two lovers shared a languid kiss.

The insula of the Casti Amanti was comprised of several houses, a bakery, and an attached stable. In the latter, archaeologists previously found the skeletons of mules used to turn millstones for the baking of bread.

Archaeologists have long known that the area had been under repair following an earthquake that struck Pompeii a few days before the eruption of Vesuvius.

There are signs that redecoration had already begun in a large room in the aptly-named Casa dei Pittori al Lavoro (“The House of the Painters at Work”).

The walls of the room had been adorned with preparatory drawings for a fresco that was never completed — with the work interrupted by the volcanic cataclysm.

It is unclear whether the two men perished in the same earthquake that precipitated the repair work in the Casa dei Pittori al Lavoro — or one that struck later.

Either way, the wall that crushed them was found buried under the ashfall from Vesuvius.

Pompeii Archaeological Park director Dr Gabriel Zuchtriegel said: “In recent years, we have realised there were violent, powerful seismic events happening at the time of the eruption.”

New archaeological methods, he explained, “allow us to better understand the inferno that in two days completely destroyed the city of Pompeii, killing many inhabitants.”

In this way, he added, it is possible to determine the order and manner of the deaths of Pompeii’s unlucky denizens with considerable precision.

To date, archaeologists have succeeded in excavating the remains of more than 1,300 of Vesuvius’ victims (of Pompeii’s estimated population of 11,000) from the dig site south of Naples.

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The earthquakes contemporaneous with the eruption of Vesuvius was not the only seismic activity that Pompeii experienced in the run-up to the eruption.

In fact, the Roman writer Pliny the Younger once said that quakes “were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania [the region surrounding Pompeii].”

A precursor earthquake also struck the area around the Bay of Naples on February 5, AD 62. This activity is estimated to have been of magnitude 5–6, and caused severe damage to the towns of both Pompeii and neighbouring Herculaneum.

This episode was depicted on a relief found in the Pompeii house of the banker Lucius Caecilius Iucundus (who may be a familiar character to those Britons of a certain age who suffered through the “Cambridge Latin Course” during their schooldays!).

The Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger also wrote around that time of the deaths of 600 sheep in the vicinity of Pompeii from “tainted air” — possibly, in actuality, the release of harmful volcanic gases from the active volcano.

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