“The Two Maidens” of Pompeii are men

Cast of the misnamed "The Two Maidens" from House of the Cryptoporticus. Rapiti All Morte exhibition, 2015.An ongoing project to CT scan the plaster casts of the victims of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. has revealed that the cast of two embracing figures known as The Two Maidens are in fact men. The skeletal remains of the couple and the cavity in the volcanic rock left by the decay of their soft tissues were discovered in the garden of the House of the Cryptoporticus in a 1914 excavation overseen by Pompeii’s director of works Vittorio Spinazzola. The remains of eight people were found in that little peristyle garden, two of them in 1913, the rest between July 2nd and 21st of 1914.

Casts and skeletons in the garden of the House of the Cryptoporticus, 1914. Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità, 1914, Vol XI, p.261.All eight were found in the fine ash layer that followed the pumice fall, encased by the pyroclastic flow that covered the town. Plaster casts were made of three of the eight (the right conditions for creating the casts are rare; out of more than 1,100 human remains found at Pompeii, casts have been made of only 86 of them), with particular attention paid to the more complex problem of the couple. The Two Maidens were erroneously assumed to be women because of their posture and the shapeliness of their legs. Here is how Spinazzola described the find in the yearly report on the excavation (translation mine):

Cast of "Two Maidens" in the garden of the House of the Cryptoporticus, 1914. Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità, 1914, Vol XI, p.261.One of the fallen lies on the left side, the head pointing to the east and the legs, a bit contracted, to the west. The left hand is folded near the head, in the ashes, and the right is under the chin as if to push away something obstructing the mouth and preventing breathing. The other person is bent on the right side with his head on the breast of the first. And this pose against the abdomen of the first fallen, the right arm buried in the ashes, the left gently bent under the breasts, the legs with full and tender female contours, one more, one less contracted, as of someone sweetly reclining to sleep an eternal sleep in a protective womb.

Apparently seeking comfort in the face of apocalyptic death was deemed to be a feminine impulse rather than a human one. The supposed “female contours” of the legs and later descriptions of “little rings” found on the fingers were extensions of that assumption.

Detail of cast of couple from House of the Cryptoporticus, 1914. Rapiti All Morte exhibition, 2015.Examination of osteological and morphological features on the CAT scan indicates that both individuals are male and that the individual with his head against the chest of the other was a young man about 18 years old at the time of death. The other person is believed to be an adult male who was at least 20 years old when Vesuvius claimed his life. Mitochondrial DNA extracted from one tooth and bone fragments established conclusively that the younger of the two was male. DNA analysis confirmed that the two were neither brothers nor father and son. Some news stories have leapt to the conclusion that they were therefore lovers, which is not remotely supportable by the evidence and seems to me just another iteration of the same prejudices that caused the original Two Maidens error.

Conservators work on "Two Maidens." Photo courtesy the Archeological Site of Pompeii.The scans are part of the Great Pompeii Project, an extensive program of architectural restoration and stabilization of the most endangered features of the ancient city. The 86 human casts, the oldest of which date to the 1860s when pioneering archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli first filled a cavity with plaster to capture the final death throes of one of Vesuvius’ victims, are in need of restoration as much as the buildings are, and they pose a thorny challenge since they contain human remains. In order to get a clear idea of what’s inside the plaster shell — bones, metal supports, more plaster in varying states of decay — conservators borrowed a state-of-the-art 16-layer CT scanner that was able to penetrate the dense materials.

With the scans as guides, the team was able to extract mitochondrial DNA (which survives far better than nuclear DNA in archaeological contexts) from the skeletal remains with pinpoint precision and minimal damage. This opens up a whole new arena of information about the people of Pompeii.


18 thoughts on ““The Two Maidens” of Pompeii are men

  1. And maybe the two were just…oh, I don’t know…standing near each other when they collapsed and ended up where they did. That’s not very dramatic, though.

  2. Pyroclastic flows with temperatures of between 300 and 800 °C (572-1472 F°) speeding at more than 1000 km/h (621.37 miles/h) may easily explain a little twist and turn here and there. Apart from that, the heat alone has already an effect (there is a term for that). :no:

  3. Best buddies, distant cousins, strangers–they made the human gestures of reaching out for help in a time of disaster. There is no reason to assume anything more.

  4. I have made, I think, five visits to Pompeii, and each time found the casts sobering and moving.

    It was much later – perhaps here – that I found out about the human remains within.

    The Neapolitan summer is long. If you are visiting the site from May to October, wear a hat, expose as little skin as possible, and carry water. The sun is punishing. At the car park close to the entrance, you can buy frozen bottles of water and sandwiches.

    I hear they have added another restaurant inside Pompeii, but I always found the restaurants at the car park preferable: if one relies upon the places inside the walls, you may be disappointed: they are very crowded.

  5. It rather says something about people’s silly assumptions that when the figures were viewed as ‘two maidens’ that they were not declaring that they were lovers.

  6. Thoughtful responses above: people whose compassion allows them to grasp the obvious. That in events like this, people reach out to whoever is close by.

    I have a question. In what way does mtDNA “prove” that these two people were male? I am not doubting the conclusion. But everyone, male and female has mtDNA in every cell of our bodies: it is at the core of the processes that allow our cells to function. The only link to gender it has is that it is passed by women to all their children, male or female. So either there is a misinterpretation or a mix-up in terminology. Any ideas, Lucius?

  7. Annie, please note that I am not an expert in biology, history, Romans (or anything else) nor that I am a native speaker. In short, I am guessing here:

    You probably answered it yourself, if the only link to gender is that it is passed by a woman onto all her children, male or female: Why would that be ?

    In case it is passed by mothers onto all children, the information presumably sits on the X chromosome of her XY chromosomal pair. If you then find out that each of the individuals has in fact the information doubled, i.e. they have no XY but a XX pair, you have proof that they are male and not female.

    🙁 PS: Can I myself humbly call a real expert ?

  8. Ok, I think I got it all wrong. Indeed, the mitochondrial DNA seems to be in fact entirely separated from the human chromosomal genome, and in most cases, i.e. almost all the cases, the paternal part is simply not transferred. The idea, however, would -probably(?)- be a similar one.

  9. Yeah I was thinking the same thing. Might indeed be a mix-up, that mtDNA was used to conclude that they were not brothers (although then they still could have been half-brothers).

  10. Interesting comments but no one has mentioned those teeth! The extra large head of the lower figure seems to have teeth going in several directions.Looks like an alien head to me!

  11. According to Livius, the gender was determined by osteological and morphological observations in the MRI – they could likely make out the pelvic bones and other features to tell they were male.

    About the teeth: the bones have shifted inside the cavities over the centuries as the flesh turned to dust. Many of the castings have bones visible where they were against the outside of the cavity and weren’t covered by the plaster when the casting was made. Ok, maybe it is an Alien and they are saving it for major cash when the Eurozone is dissolved.

  12. I don’t care if they were best friends, master and slave, or lovers. It breaks my heart to even try to think what He’ll they went through

  13. Ha! You left yourself open in this one! Yes, Master and Slave. Master was gay and that’s his sex/body slave! Haha! Gotcha! Yeah, that’s how to do it! Stealth attack!

    Kidding. 😉 There is no way to tell if they were gay or straight or into goats. Maybe they were really close friends, had grown up together, and the older seeing the younger one as his little brother, tried to protect him.

    Or maybe they were strangers and grabbed each other in fear and desperation when the pyroclastic flow reach them.

    The possibilities are endless. However, since I’m gay, I do
    really like the “lovers” suggestion. The older, wiser, stronger boy, we’ll name him Maximus Magnus Gallus 😉, pulled his younger, weaker, dull witted twink (cute ANNNND stupid!) boyfriend (they are both twinks actually), we’ll call him Gaius Bellus Pullos, in really close to protect him. Alas, he could not and they died in each other’s arms. The young gay couple’s last loving embrace. Poignant.

  14. It is a little bit silly for people to assume they’re this-or-that, gay or straight, friends or strangers. If I hadn’t known they weren’t blood-related, I probably would’ve assumed father and son.

    That being said, I understand the desire people have to create satisfying and fulfilling narratives out of archaeological evidence. It’s one way of contextualizing, empathizing with, and relating to the past. The idea of two lovers dying in a final embrace is more exciting than, like, some dude falling down next to a stranger who happened to also be in line at the post office. It also isn’t a completely ahistorical assumption. Speaking as a scientist, the ancient world do be kinda gay sometimes. There had to be SOME gay folks out in Pompeii that day.

    Of course, creating these little narratives doesn’t get us any closer to the actual historical fact, but it’s a supremely human impulse, and there’s no reason to deny people their imagination. But I /would/ like more poetic fanfiction about the Huldre Fen Woman. What a babe.

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