Prelude to a Dark, Dreadful Day in Pompeii

HeculaeneumunderothertownsArchaeological investigations constantly add to the body of knowledge about the dark days of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Two decades ago the story of the eruption of Vesuvius went that in August of 79 AD a quiet mountainside with vineyards growing on its slopes exploded killing an estimated 16,000 victims and burying two towns, several smaller communities, and much of the countryside under layers of ash and mud. Over time the names of the towns, even their existence, was lost to memory until they were rediscovered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

What is known for sure is that in February, 62 AD the area was rocked by an earthquake that caused massive destruction along the bay of Naples and in Pompeii. The city was undergoing restoration when the volcano erupted. Since six hundred sheep were reported to have died on the slopes of Vesuvius, the earthquake was likely associated with Vesuvius.

Family groupThe main (actually only) eyewitness reports that survive of the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction that followed are two letters from Pliny the Younger, a nephew of a prominent Admiral of the Roman fleet who died attempting to rescue survivors, written 25 years after the event. (They’ll have their own day later.) The actual date of the eruption has even been called into question. While August has long been the date attributed to the eruption, some experts claim that the cooler weather clothing the victims wore and the food in season – even some references in one of Pliny’s letters – indicate November 23rd as the correct date.

The residents of Pompeii, a busy trading town in Campania which was several centuries old, were originally believed to have been killed by suffocation from poisonous gases, experts now believe – based on the condition of the bodies (see pic of contorted limbs of  cast of family unit at display in British Museum)– that they died from the superheated temperatures. The town was buried under 13-20 feet of pumice and ash. More wealthy resort town of Herculaneum was initially inundated by a flow of superheated ash (pyroclastic flow) that buried the town under about 75 feet of pumice and ash that hardened into “tuff” and encased the town in an airtight shell that left the town remarkably preserved. It has revealed fewer of its secrets because it lies beneath to small towns. (See pics)

Tomorrow, A Visit from Author V.C. Locey

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Prelude to a Dark, Dreadful Day in Pompeii

  1. I visited Ercolano (Herculaneum) way back in the early ’70s. The simple signs of everyday life–bread on a table, a dog–made me weep.

    • The saddest sight in Herculaneum was the bed where a handicapped child had died alone. At first, archaeologists assumed the residents had escaped because there were so few remains found. Later, they discovered hundreds of skeletons in the warehouses by the waterfront. There could be more since that area has not been excavated.

      • I do recall the reporting when the waterfront was excavated and so many remains were found. That’s when the theory of death by superheated gasses began to gain traction. So tragic.

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