Nearly 2,000 years ago, a massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius spewed ash and molten rock onto the nearby Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, killing thousands of residents as the searing volcanic debris burned and smothered the area so quickly that few could escape. Now, even after centuries of excavations, archaeologists continue to make astonishing discoveries that illuminate what day-to-day life was like in the once-idyllic seaside settlements before that fateful day, and how those who never made it out spent their last moments.
According to the Italian news agency ANSA, researchers have discovered five new skeletons in the ruins of a home in Pompeii. Believed to be the remains of two women and three children, the bones were found huddled together in a small bedroom, suggesting that the individuals were seeking shelter from the disaster when they perished.
Massimo Osanna, the director of the Pompeii archaeological site, noted that the skeletons are intact and do not appear to have been disturbed by looters. He and his team speculate that the remains are those of a family who sought refuge in their home but were ultimately crushed by a shower of rocks or burned.
"It's a shocking discovery, but also very important for the history of studies," Osanna said. Earlier this month, before the family of skeletons were unearthed within, the team’s examination of the home itself revealed evidence – of a rather unexpected form – in support of the theory that the eruption happened later in the year than historical accounts report.
Much of what we know about the eruption comes from the writings of Pliny the Younger, a lawyer born in 61 CE who apparently witnessed the destruction, which killed his uncle, Pliny the Elder. Recounting the experience in vivid detail in letters written 25 years later, Pliny noted that the event occurred in August of the year 79 CE.
But charcoal graffiti, found scrawled on the side of this home, reads: “On the 16th day before the calendar of November, he indulged in immoderate food."
This comical scribble mocking an unknown individual for their hefty appetite is remarkable not only for remaining legible after millennia spent covered by ashy rubble, but also because it provides a direct time-stamp of business-as-usual in Pompeii well into autumn. (As the Romans used the same calendar as we do today, the date would correspond to October 17th.) An analysis of the building shows that it was likely undergoing construction at the time of the eruption, implying that a cheeky vandal wrote a rude message on the walls at a building site – a human behavior that remains popular.
Prior to this discovery, archaeologists had begun to doubt Pliny’s memory for the details thanks to evidence of late harvest-season fruits in the ruins and cool-weather clothing on some of the victims.