In what was once an impressive villa in the northwest of Pompeii, archaeologists have uncovered two more victims of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.
The two skeletons were found during ongoing excavations at Civita Giuliana, just 700 meters (2,300 feet) northwest of Pompeii, where the remains of horses were found back in 2018. They were found inside a side room of the cryptoporticus, a passageway below the villa leading to the upper floors, where they likely fled in an attempt to escape their fate. The team believe they died in the pyroclastic flow that destroyed the upper floors of the house, before they were engulfed and entombed by the ash.
The victims are believed to be the remains of a young man, between 18 and 25 years old, and an older man aged between 30 and 40. The younger man showed signs of compression in his spine, suggesting that he had carried out a lot of tough manual work. This combined with his simple tunic suggests he may have been a slave.
The older man was found to be wearing much more intricate clothing, including a woolen mantle around his shoulders, and may have been the younger man's master.
The remains that we see of the victims of Vesuvius are casts. Layers of ash buried everything and everyone in a nearly pristine state. The technique used to make the astonishing casts – after the bones are analyzed, plaster is poured in to create a plaster cast of the bodies' indentations – was developed by Giuseppe Fiorelli way back in 1867 and can be seen in the video below.
“It is impossible to see those deformed figures, and not feel moved. They have been dead for 18 centuries, but they are human beings seen in their agony. This is not art, it is not imitation; these are their bones, the remains of their flesh and their clothes mixed with plaster, it is the pain of death that takes on body and form," wrote Luigi Settembrini in his 1863 “Letter to the Pompeians,” which the Pompeii Archaeological Park quoted in a press release.
"Up to now temples, houses, and other objects have been found that have aroused the curiosity of educated people, artists, and archaeologists; but now you, my dear Fiorelli, have uncovered human pain, and every man feels it."
How the casts are made.
Victims of the eruption suffered some of the most awful deaths imaginable. Many of the victims in the nearby town of Herculaneum died when the extreme heat caused their heads to either crack, explode, or their brains turn to glass. Even worse, the heat and pressure that caused their heads to explode likely came from inside their own heads, according to a study in 2018. The team found evidence of "rapid vaporization of body fluids and soft tissues of people at death due to exposure to extreme heat," ie their blood and other fluids boiled inside them, and their flesh vaporized shortly afterward.
The only consolation is that the muscles of the dead appear to have disappeared more quickly than they could contract, explaining the "life-like stances" of many of the victims, meaning that death was pretty much instantaneous, taking only a few seconds to occur.