Sometimes,, historical tragedy is the archaeologist’s best friend. Most cities slowly fade into obscurity as people gradually pack up their belongings and move away, chasing greener or safer pastures. The buildings they leave behind slowly crumble until there’s nothing left but foundations which often become buried by debris, newer construction, or both.
When death is instantaneous and on a massive scale, however, sometimes belongings survive intact and in their natural places for scientists to one day find.
The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE in Roman Italy was one of the largest in history, throwing ash miles into the sky and raining down debris over nearby cities such as Pompeii, which alone was home to over 10,000 people.
Many took shelter indoors, only to find themselves trapped as feet of ash quickly blocked doorways. Next, roofs collapsed from the weight of the debris.
How many were alive at that point is debatable. Flows of super-heated air rolled down the mountain and through the cities, instantly killing anyone the touched. Building material would not have provided enough protection from the temperatures to matter. Bodies involuntarily curled into a fetal position as a result of the rapid drying; this is the pose in which many victims were found.
And then it was over. The eruption lasted less than two days, but it completely buried multiple cities, the two most well known being Herculaneum and Pompeii. Pompeii was buried by up to 20 feet of debris. Herculaneum found itself beneath up to 60 ft. This total obliteration of the settlements led to them being all but forgotten for 1500 years, when they were again discovered.
Archaeological Treasure Trove
The rapid burial did something remarkable for buildings: it preserved them and their contents. Any warfare in the area would run harmlessly over them. The elements could no longer weather them, and walls could not become unstable and topple. Belongings remained where they were left. The cities couldn’t be pillaged. In many ways, Vesuvius froze Pompeii and other cities in time, creating a snapshot of how life was the moment before the volcano erupted.
Particularly notable are the preserved frescoes. Frescoes are painted on wet plaster, effectively making the painting part of the wall. As Roman buildings have decayed over the centuries, so have the frescoes. But the frescoes at Pompeii look much like they did before the eruption, and they can be found on intact buildings.
It can be very difficult to keep broken things from continuing to break. Pompeii has been the site of excavations for over 200 years. It’s a tremendously large amount of territory to conserve and protect: dozens of buildings spread over 150 acres which attract over 2 million tourists a year. Unfortunately, conservation efforts have not been done well. Plaster is flaking and paint is fading. Buildings are crumbling. In 2010, the House of the Gladiators collapsed. Various restoration attempts have caused additional damage to the original materials. And tourists have contributed their fair share of problems, breaking off pieces as souvenirs and leaving behind graffiti.
Today Vesuvius is the only active volcano in mainland Europe, having last erupted in 1944. More than three million people live within 20 miles of it, making it one of the most densely populated volcanic areas in the world.
And what about the Doctor’s claim Romans didn’t have a word for volcano until after the Vesuvius eruption? I’m going to let him duke it out with the Online Etymology Dictionary, which credits Mt. Etna as being the first mountain to be graced by the Romans with that term.