Of the many natural disasters that ravaged the ancient world—from famines and plagues to floods and earthquakes—the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD is one of the only ones we know about in any great detail. One of the main reasons for this is that we have the eyewitness account of Pliny the Younger, preserved in a couple of letters he wrote to his close friend: the historian Tacitus. Pliny watched the disaster unfold from his luxury villa across the bay in Misenum, and witnessed his uncle (the encyclopedist, scientist and naval captain Pliny the Elder), sail across the bay to get a closer—and ultimately fatal—look.
But while Pliny might have left us an overview of the disaster, the individual stories of the 1150 victims so far discovered in Pompeii have only been pieced together slowly and painstakingly since the middle of the 18th century. And it’s not just from the perfectly preserved town itself that we can reconstruct what happened. If we know how to listen, even the macabre, silent bodies of those who made the town both their home and their final resting place have something to tell us.
They were only preserved thanks to an innovative stroke of genius
The history of Pompeii’s excavation goes all the way back to 1748 (or 1599 if you count the brief but abandoned fieldwork of Domenico Fontana, who found the sexual explicitness of his discoveries too much to stomach and hastily reburied them). For the first hundred or so years, excavations were carried out on an ad hoc basis. The bourbon dynast Charles VII first ordered and patronized them for his own gain, either in the form of personal prestige or the magnificent discoveries themselves which he would have hauled off to his palace in Portici. But over time, as more of the town (and its treasures) was uncovered, the process became more systematic.
In 1860, excavations fell under the direction of Giuseppe Fiorelli. The Neapolitan archaeologist was something of a maverick: politically, he had spent some time in prison for his radical beliefs; professionally, he was recognized (and respected) for embracing more radical approaches to the field of archaeology. These approaches would prove vital during his tenure in Pompeii. For without them, it’s unlikely we would still have any of the remains of the town’s victims—at least in the form we know them.
Upon discovering a collection of human bones in the morbidly named “Alley of the Skeletons”, he noticed that hollow cavities, where the flesh had decomposed, had formed around them. Realizing the potential for preserving more than just the skeletons, he came up with a masterful idea, known henceforth as the Fiorelli Method. Fiorelli ordered his excavators to pour Plaster of Paris into the hollow cavities and wait for it to set. Only after it had hardened would they be able to carefully chip away at the ashen layers around the cavity, ultimately leaving an intricately detailed cast complete with facial expressions and details of the clothes the victim was wearing.