Herculaneum: Clues to Vesuvius eruption



More than 80 skeletons have been unearthed in the ancient Mediterranean town of Herculaneum, west of Italy's Mount Vesuvius. This anthropological find corroborates a reinterpretation by three University of Rhode Island scientists of the sequence of the August A.D. 79 eruption of Vesuvius. In addition, the discovery is the first proof that large numbers of people perished as they tried to flee from the eruption, estimated to have been about 10 times more powerful than the May 1980 Mount St. Helens blast.

‘Who says dead men don't talk? Their bones have something to say about them and their everyday lives,’ says Sara C. Bisel, a physical anthropologist who analyzed the skeletons. Among the remains are a cluster of skeletons from six adults, four children, and two infants trying to shield themselves from the volcanic onslaught; the skeleton of a sailor, still clutching an oar, lying on his back beside an 8-m-long capsized boat; a woman whose now bony hand was still graced with gem-encrusted gold rings; and a soldier (see Figure 1). From these and other finds the anthropological team was able to discern that the ancient Romans, on average, were shorter than modern citizens and, judging from the condition of some of the teeth, probably had a low-sugar diet.