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Discovery of Herculaneum bodies and skeletal remains in the wake of 79 AD

The Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD was an event none foresaw, least of all the residents of the nearby areas of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, Stabiae and Boscoreale. In fact, they were blissfully unaware that they were living in the shadow of a dangerously active volcano. Ironically, when Vesuvius blew up, there’s a chance that Herculaneum’s residents would likely have seen the mushroom cloud that moved to engulf their neighbor Pompeii, little knowing that a similar fate awaited them. 

The impact of Vesuvius is believed to be at least 100,000 times more disastrous than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Here’s how the volcanic eruption of 79 AD affected its people, the details of which are equal parts horrifying and tragic.

Trigger warning: certain details are quite graphic, so please read ahead with caution.

Impact of the 79 AD eruption

Herculaneum bodies

Herculaneum bodies

Same eruption, different outcomes: Vesuvius’ outburst on Herculaneum was a stark contrast to its aftermath in Pompeii. In Herculaneum, a debris cloud assumed to be around 815℃ enveloped the town in a pyroclastic surge. Mud, gas and hot ash sped towards Herculaneum. Successive pyroclastic flows like this covered the city in layers of ash, blanketing everything in its wake. In a matter of minutes, life came to a standstill. Paradoxically, the pyroclastic flows that snuffed the life out of Herculaneum also led to its incredible preservation, with some structures being buried to a height of a three-storeyed building.

While in Pompeii the people were smothered by ash and pumice stones, with some bodies ending up entombed in casts by calcified ash, only skeletons remained in Herculaneum.

Herculaneum bodies

The deadly heat

Scientists believe that the intense heat from the eruption caused spontaneous reflexes in the victims, resulting in thermal-induced body contractions, or tight clenching of limbs and muscles. The heat may have also caused fractures and skull explosions, leaving blackened traces on victims’ bones. It is assumed that the body reacts this way at temperatures exceeding 400-500℃. The resulting thermal shock vaporized their bodies, killing them instantly. Many bones found here are also reddish in color, indicating the blood that leached out of the bodies of the victims. However, these processes happened very rapidly, and people were not likely to feel the destruction at each stage. Later, hot ash would preserve the skeletons of the victims.

Where were the Herculaneum bodies found?

Herculaneum bodies

For a long time, excavations yielded no human remains, prompting researchers and archeologists to think that Herculaneum’s population evacuated in time. It was only in the 1980s that around 300 skeletons were found near the shore, huddled in boat houses. They were potentially looking to escape via the Bay of Naples, but the heat got to them quicker than they anticipated.

What do the Herculaneum bodies reveal to us?

The well-preserved bodily remains at Herculaneum give us great insights into the lifestyle, diet and disease patterns of its people. For instance, it was found that the residents had healthy teeth; and tooth decay was perhaps kept at bay due to sufficient amounts of fluoride ingested through seafood, which comprised their staple diet. Ancient Romans also did not consume a lot of sugar, which contributed to their good oral health.

A disease that commonly afflicted men, women and children alike was pleurisy, which is an inflammation of a membrane surrounding the lungs. This was possibly due to pollution that occurred from the burning of wood, manure and animal fat without chimneys or proper ventilation. Head lice were also a common affliction.

By and large, however, the people of Herculaneum were a healthy and robust crowd, with body structures similar to those in present-day Naples.

Herculaneum bodies

Gruesome last moments

The Herculaneum boathouse skeletons paint a gruesome picture of the victims’ last moments. Among the bodies was found a mother comforting her young son, and a ‘Lady with the rings’, so called because of the rings and precious jewels found around her. There was also the remains of a pregnant mother, with the tiny bones of her seven-month-old fetus beneath her. The skeleton of a man clutching a small leather bag (believed to hold his valuable items) was also found.  

Herculaneum bodies

The (failed) rescue mission

The remains of an officer conducting a rescue mission were also found in Herculaneum. He was believed to have been sent by historian and naval commander, Pliny the Elder. Evidence pointing to his high rank lies in the discovery of his dagger, gold coins, and decorated gold and silver belt. He also possessed a bag of tools, indicating that he was trained in carpentry. Unfortunately, his mission did not achieve fruition.




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Frequently asked questions about Herculaneum bodies

Can we see the victims frozen in time at Herculaneum today?

Yes, it’s possible to see Herculaneum bodies even today down by the boathouses, close to the shore of the Naples bay. Note that this can be a distressing experience as it is a stark reminder of the death and suffering that swept through the city — and possibly not recommended for children or the faint-hearted.

Is it possible that there are more skeletal remains that are yet to be unearthed at Herculaneum?

Yes, it’s highly likely that many human remains lie still undiscovered, as only a fraction of the entire township has been excavated. Further digging poses serious risks as the neighboring towns of Ercolano and Portici are built above Herculaneum, and repeated volcanic activity has rendered the topology fragile and unstable.

Did the recovered bodies belong to members only of wealth and nobility?

Contrary to this belief, archeologists also found preserved remnants of slaves and members of the lower social classes. This was evidenced in cases of malnutrition or bodily damage sustained by manual labor, etc.

What impacts do volcanic events have on the bodies of people?

Volcanic ash is a fine, gritty material that can irritate the lungs and airways, causing coughing, difficulty breathing, and respiratory problems. Direct exposure to pyroclastic surges can cause instant and severe burns, often fatal. Large, ejected rocks can also cause serious injuries or death if they strike people directly. Secondary hazards like landslides triggered by volcanic eruptions also cause death and damage.

Does Mount Vesuvius still pose an active threat to visitors today?

Vesuvius is still an active volcano although the last 70-80 years have not seen much seismic activity. Scientists are constantly monitoring its behavior to warn people of the next potential eruption.