The skeleton of the “last victim” of Herculaneum’s destruction in the 79 A.D. eruption of Vesuvius has been found on what used to be the ancient city’s beach, just steps from the sea. He was carrying a small bag probably containing all the portable wealth he could get his hands on. The bag was leather and held a wooden box in which a metal ring, iron or bronze, can be seen.
The victim found on the beach is an adult male around 40/45 years old of strong build. He was found on his back in supine position, his head pointed towards the city. His body was suspended in the hardened flow, surrounded by debris from the city that was blow to the sea by the volcanic eruption. He was likely standing on the beach when the first pyroclastic surge struck the city. He would have had only seconds to glimpse of the cloud of boiling gas and ash that would claim his life before his soft tissues were instantly vaporized by the heat blast of more than 800F moving at hundreds of miles of an hour and his skeleton was imprisoned in a mass of volcanic gases, ash and debris which hardened to rock. His bones, stained red by his own vaporized blood, are blackened and broken with numerous heat-induced fractures.
While more than 300 skeletons were discovered in the arched storage arcades on the beach, killed in the act of seeking shelter and rescue from the sea, this skeleton is the first fugitive found outside the archways that has been excavated using the multi-disciplinary methodologies of modern archaeological practice.
As the skeleton was excavated, a shoulder bag emerged mid-way up the body. Composed of wood, metal and fabric, the bag and its contents are an extremely rare example of a multi-material compound artifact whose organic elements have survived along with the metal in their original configuration. Even traces of the original gold finishing are visible in the soil. Because the context around the bag is full of minute elements that are in close proximity to the bones of the arm and spine, the recovery of the full find is extremely difficult. Archaeologists plan to detach a block of earth below the bag so that it can be excavated in laboratory condition to preserve every tiny smidgen of this unique purse and its contents.
[Herculaneum Conservation Project archaeologist Domenico] Camardo said the eruption of Vesuvius hit Herculaneum in a different way to Pompeii.
“This is the crucial difference between the two,” he added. “Pompeii was destroyed by a rain of ash and lapillus, which buried it by three or four metres. Instead, Herculaneum was first destroyed by the pyroclastic cloud of a temperature of over 400 degrees. It burned trees, inhabitants and other forms of life.”
The city was subsequently hit “by six waves of volcanic mud that arrived like a flood and froze it under almost 20 metres of material”, Camardo added. “But this flood of mud, which then hardened, allowed the conservation of all the organic relics, as oxygen was not able to filter through … so today we find things like items of food, which haven’t been found in Pompeii.”
Since excavations at the beach resumed in 2010, thousands of wooden remains have been found, hurled onto the beach by the pyroclastic surge. Everything from whole trees to beams to joists to struts to a giant plank 34 feet long that took 12 people to move. More than 250 wooden elements from the roof of the sculpture gallery of the House of the Relief of Telephus were found after having been ripped off the villa and smashed upside down in the waterlogged sand of the beach. Preserved in the sand and the air-tight volcanic rock, the timbers were in such extraordinary condition that archaeologists were able to trace all the joinery and calculate the pitch of the roof to create the first full reconstruction of the timberwork of a Roman roof.
Unlike its more famous neighbor Pompeii, most of the ancient city of Herculaneum is still buried under 100 feet of volcanic rock and the modern city of Ercolano built on top of it. The excavation of the “antica spiaggia” (ancient beach) area is part of a long-term plan to create an archaeological trail that reconnects the ancient shoreline to the Villa of the Papyri, making it possible for visitors to take a stroll through ancient Herculaneum as its residence would have been able to. The excavation will conclude in 2023 and the new beach area opened to the public in 2024.