Unusually Preserved Bodies of 'Master and Slave' Fleeing Eruption Found in Pompeii

The agonized remains of the two men were so well preserved in an underground corridor that we can even see what they wore: winter gear

Ariel David
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Plaster casts of two bodies found in an underground corridor in of a villa outside Pompeii
Plaster casts of two bodies found in an underground corridor in of a villa outside PompeiiCredit: Luigi Spina, courtesy of the Pompeii Archaeological Park
Ariel David
Ariel David

Two newly discovered bodies in Pompeii in an extraordinary state of preservation may have been master and slave, the Italian archaeologists excavating the ruined city announced on Saturday.

The men had apparently sought protection in an underground corridor of an opulent villa in Pompeii from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, in vain. Using a century-old technique, experts have created casts of the bodies, reconstructing the original shape of the bodies down to their contorted limbs and the folds of the clothes they wore, the Archaeological Park of Pompeii announced.

The revelation that the two were wearing heavy winter clothes provides an additional clue into the enduring debate on the exact date of the cataclysm that destroyed Pompeii and its neighboring towns in 79 C.E., researchers say.

Parts of the suburban villa just outside the ancient settlement had been previously investigated, but authorities restarted the dig in January after the area was illegally excavated by looters, says Massimo Osanna, the director of the archaeological park.

“We got lucky,” Osanna told Italy’s ANSA news agency. “Because the area where we found the bodies of the two men had eluded both the excavations at the start of the 20th century and the tomb raiders: a trench dug by the looters passed virtually beside the feet of one of the two victims.”

Horses still in harness

Vesuvius, seen from PompeiiCredit: Cesare Abbate/AP

The skeletons were found buried in at least two meters of volcanic sediments in the collapsed ruins of a cryptoporticus, an underground passage, where the two victims had presumably sought refuge from the falling ash and molten rocks explosively ejected by Vesuvius. But nothing could protect them from the pyroclastic flow, a red-hot fast-moving cloud of hot gases and volcanic material that rolled through Pompeii at the height of the eruption, killing everyone instantly.

“The cause of death was probably thermal shock, as shown also by the contorted position of their limbs,” Osanna said. “It is a touching discovery and an incredible testimony of those final moments.”

The bones of the victims told archaeologists that one of the men was fairly young, between 18 and 25 years of age. His vertebrae showed multiple signs of compression, which is unusual for this age and indicates he carried out hard manual labor, the Pompeii park said in a statement. The second victim, also a male, was more robust and aged between 30 and 40. These elements led the archaeologists to speculate the two may have been an upper class citizen and a slave.

After removing parts of the skeletons, archaeologists were able to reconstruct the original shape and position of the bodies by pouring plaster into the cavity where the victims were found. This method was first pioneered in the 1860s by Giuseppe Fiorelli, the archaeologist who then led the Pompeii excavations. Fiorelli realized that the victims of the eruptions were covered by layers of volcanic ash which quickly hardened while the bodies inside decayed, leaving a void that was the exact negative image of the corpses. By pouring plaster into those cavities archaeologists have been able to make dozens of casts depicting the inhabitants of Pompeii dramatically frozen at their moment of death.

The reconstruction of the two newly uncovered victims was the first time since the 1990s that researchers had successfully attempted to use this method on human remains, Osanna says. The most recent plaster reconstruction involved three horses, which were found in 2017 in the stables of this same villa. The animals had died still wearing a fine harness which had been placed on them possibly as they were being prepared to evacuate their owners.

Because of the find, the complex has since been nicknamed the “Villa of the Harnessed Sorrell.”

The folds of the clothing were preserved: Plaster casts of one of the bodies found in an underground corridor in of a villa outside PompeiiCredit: Luigi Spina, courtesy of the Pompeii Archaeological Park
Plaster casts of two bodies found in an underground corridor in of a villa outside PompeiiCredit: Luigi Spina, courtesy of the Pompeii Archaeological Park

Winter collection of 79 C.E.

The casts of the two human victims found in the villa’s cryptoporticus are so finely detailed that the archaeologists could deduce, from the imprint of the folds in their clothes, that the purported slave wore a wool tunic. The older man had a heavy wool cloak clasped at his left shoulder, the park’s statement said.

This lends weight to a theory according to which the eruption happened later in the year 79 C.E. than previously thought. Scholars had traditionally dated the destruction of Pompeii to August 24, based on the date reported by the Roman writer Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the event as a youth.

However, that dating has been called into question over the last years by archaeological evidence. Braziers and calcified autumnal fruit found among the ruins suggested a fall date for the eruption. Finally, a recently uncovered charcoal inscription mentioned the date of October 17, suggesting the eruption could not have occurred before then.

The winter clothes of the newly uncovered bodies at Pompeii therefore lends further support to the idea that the destruction occurred at this later time, probably on October 24 and 25, the researchers say.

As for the identity of the two victims, archaeologists can only speculate. The Villa of the Harnessed Sorrell lay just 700 meters north of the town and dated to the time of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor who died in 14 C.E. It was a majestic complex with balustraded terraces offering a panoramic sea view and a banqueting hall decorated with marble inserts.

Pompeii residential area suffers weather damageCredit: AP

A graffito etched into one of the frescoed walls of the house, uncovered earlier this year, has given researchers some clues as to the identity of its owners. The inscription, written in a childish hand, reads “Mummia” which has led archaeologist to theorize it may have been the autograph of a little girl who was a member of the Mummii family, an important aristocratic dynasty in the Roman Empire.

Initially a plebian family, the Mummiis first rose to prominence thanks to Lucius Mummius “Achaicus” (“the Greek”), a second century B.C.E. general who had a key role in conquering Greece for what was then the Roman Republic. Whether little “Mummia” or one of the men found dead in a corridor of their extravagant villa were indeed descendants of this conquering general is a question that we may never be able to answer.

Plaster casts of one bodies found in an underground corridor in of a villa outside PompeiiCredit: Luigi Spina, courtesy of the Pompeii Archaeological Park

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