Excavations at Pompeii Reveal More About How One Unlucky Victim Died

The remains of a man crushed by a boulder while fleeing the eruption of Pompeii were excavated earlier this month. (Photo: Courtesy of Archaeological Park of Pompeii)
Archaeologists believe the man was likely around 30-years-old and suffering from an injury when the 661-pound rock crushed him.
Archaeologists believe the man was likely around 30 years old and suffering from an injury when the 661-pound rock crushed him. (Photo: Courtesy of Archaeological Park of Pompeii)

The ancient Roman city of Pompeii, buried under ash and mud during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., has given up another haunting detail of its inhabitants' final moments.

Earlier this year, archaeologists excavating a new section of the city uncovered the skeleton of a 30-year-old man crushed beneath a 661-pound stone block. His remains were discovered in an alley on top of lapilli (or volcanic rock), suggesting that he survived the first eruption, but was subsequently consumed by the extremely violent seismic shockwaves and pyroclastic surges that later swept the city. Initially, researchers hypothesized he was likely thrown back by the dense pyroclastic flow and then crushed.

The massive stone block that came to rest on the victim's head was either a jarred door jamb or a projectile from the volcanic cloud.

However after further excavations, archaeologists unveiled the upper torso — revealing a fully intact skull. The skull's mouth is open wide with most of its teeth still in place. Therefore, it's now believed that the man died from asphyxia from volcanic ash and not from the stone crushing his head. Some fractures do appear on the skull, and further tests are needed to determine with better accuracy the man's final moments.

"Beyond the emotional impact of these discoveries, the ability to compare them in terms of their pathologies and lifestyles as well as the dynamics of their escape from the eruption, but above all to investigate them with ever more specific instruments and professionalism present in the field, contribute toward an increasingly accurate picture of the history and civilization of the age," Pompeii Archaeological Park director general Massimo Osanna said in a statement back in May.

Archaeologists also noted that the crushed victim was likely injured or disabled, with his tibia showing signs of a bone infection. It's possible that this disability delayed his evacuation until the very end and likely slowed his escape. As Osanna notes, the hindering circumstances that contributed to this man's fate are similar to another victim discovered earlier in Pompeii.

"This exceptional find," he said, "reminds us of an analogous case, that of a skeleton discovered by Amedeo Maiuri in the House of the Smith, and which was recently studied. These were the remains of a limping individual — he too was likely impeded in his escape by motor difficulties, and left exposed at the time in situ."

The discovery of the crushed man comes as part of recent excavations at a site called "Regio V." Other finds over the last several months have included the remains of three horses found in stables, magnificent frescoes, and the preserved remnants of pubs, shops, and former gardens.

You can watch a computer simulation of Pompeii's final hours, an event that claimed the lives of an estimated 2,000 citizens, below.