Mount Vesuvius at Pompeii erupted in 79 AD, killing scores of the city’s inhabitants and famously locking many of them in the positions of their death throes. New excavations at the Royal V site, the so-called “Cuneo” area, have yielded another extraordinary scene, one that ended in tragedy for an individual as he struggled to find safety amid the unfolding chaos.
The resident, likely a male in his 30s, somehow managed to survive the initial salvo of the eruption, and was walking on a thick layer of small stones, called lapilli, when a giant stone fell on his upper torso and head. The skeleton was found on the first floor of a building just slightly above the volcanic lapilli layer. It’s likely this individual was seeking shelter as the eruption progressed, according to archaeologists working at Pompeii Archaeological Park.
Indeed, it wasn’t lava that killed people at Pompeii. Rather, it was the pyroclastic flow — a dense, fast-moving cloud of hot gas and fragments. In this case, and as the eruption continued, the tremendous force of the blast dislodged a stone, probably the vertical part of a door frame (called a jamb), striking the man’s upper body at the moment he turned around to look at the incoming cloud. Or the blast may have already knocked him down, and the stone fell soon afterwards. Either way, it was a brutal end.
Adding insult to injury, analysis of the skeleton shows the man suffered from a bone infection, which likely made walking difficult.
In a press release, Massimo Osanna, director general of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, described it as an “exception find,” adding that it’s “the remains of a limping individual, who was also probably prevented from escaping due to motor difficulties and left at the time on site.”
Archaeologists have yet to uncover the man’s skull. The size and orientation of the stone suggests the man was decapitated, and that the skull was thrust deep into the lapilli. Future excavations could yield the remains of the man’s decapitated head lying underneath the base of the stone. [Pompeii Archaeological Park]