History

Skeletons of Pompeii Victims Found in Workshop

French and Italian archaeologists excavating in Pompeii have brought to light the remains of at least four people who died trapped in the back of a workshop during Mt. Vesuvius devastating eruption.

Likely belonging to a bronze maker, the shop stood in the artisan area near Porta Ercolano, the gate that opened onto the road linking Pompeii to Herculaneum. The building was ransacked following the eruption by looters known as fossores, who tunneled in seeking treasures buried under the ashes.

As a result, the skeletons were pushed up against the wall.

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"Since they were disturbed by looters, the bones are not connected. Anthropologists have yet to examine them, but we believe the skeletons may belong to four adults and a child," archaeologist Annalisa Capurso at the Archaeological Superintendency of Pompeii, told Discovery News.

Three gold coins dated between 74 and 78 AD and a golden necklace pendant in the shape of a leaf did escape the looters' eyes.

In addition, the archaeologists found a jug which was used for the fish-based sauce garum, and pottery such as saucepan lids, mugs and bowls.

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"The gold artifacts belonged to the victims, while the pottery was used by the owners of the shop," Capurso said.

She added the skeletons might belong to the owners of the workshop, but most likely were fugitives who sought refuge in the building.

Since the roof didn't collapse during the eruption, the group probably died during the second phase of the eruption, when surges of volcanic gas filled the shop.

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The eruption began at around 1:00 p.m. on Aug. 24, 79 A.D., when a pine tree-shaped column of smoke burst from Vesuvius. Reaching nine miles into the sky, the column started spewing a thick pumice rain.

Many residents rushed in the streets, trying to leave the city. It has been estimated this first phase produced 38 percent of the deaths as fugitives died from collapsing roofs or large fragments falling from the eruptive column.

It is possible the fugitives sought refuge in the back of the shop just to escape the pumice and ash shower.

By the early hours of Aug. 25, a nearly 10-foot-thick carpet of pumice had already covered the streets and bottoms of buildings.

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The people in the workshop likely died in those first hours, when the eruptive column collapsed, producing a series of pyroclastic currents. These are fast-moving flows of hot gas and rock at temperatures ranging from 392 to 1,292 degrees Fahrenheit.

Between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m., a final phase, punctuated by more pumice rain, buried Pompeii. What followed was a long, deathly silence.

Past studies calculated that 75 to 92 percent of the residents escaped the town at the first signs of the crisis. However, it is impossible to know how successful those fugitives were.

Hundreds of victims were recovered outside the city walls, just like the skeletons in the workshop.