Vesuvius took thousands of lives when it erupted on August 24th, 79 A.D., burying entire cities in layers of pumice, ash and mud. The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are the most famous of its victims, thanks to the extraordinary state of preservation in which they were found and the profound emotional impact of the plaster casts made from body cavities developed in the 19th century by pioneer archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli. Now the smaller, lesser known site of Oplontis is getting some high-tech attention.
Oplontis isn’t a city. It’s a multi-use villa complex composed of Villa A, a large luxury estate believed to have belonged to Poppaea, Nero’s second wife, and Oplontis B, an industrial structure that housed an active wine import-export concern. Villa A was, thankfully, not inhabited at the time of the eruption. The wine business, on the other hand, was hopping. Archaeologists have unearthed the skeletal remains of more than 50 people from a single room of Oplontis B. Thus far, they are the only human remains found at the site.
The Faces of Oplontis research project has taken a new approach to some of the unanalyzed skeletons from Oplontis B. Starting last summer, a team of archaeologists finished excavating the skeletons in Room 10 that hadn’t been fully unearthed yet and examined the remains in situ using photogrammetry (a technology that deploys high resolution photography to calculate measurements and proportions). Complete skulls were 3D scanned. All of the remains were osteologically analyzed and will be subject to mitochondrial DNA testing, stable isotope, trace element, parasitological and pathogen DNA analysis. The comprehensive study will shed light on working class Romans, their diets, health, geographical origins and, one hopes, cause of death.
Photogrammetry was also used before the excavation to record Room 10, making it a possible to create 3D model that shows were the people died (all the skeletons except for two which have been cast and moved to the front are still in their original locations at the time of death). The model gives researchers the ability to navigate the site without disturbing the remains, figuring out the stratigraphic data, which ones of them died first, by what means and how their bodies may have shifted. It’s of particular importance in Oplontis because it’s not clear what kind of volcanic fallout the site experience. Pompeii got the pumice rain. Herculaneum got the superheated mud. What took out Oplontis, which is very close to Pompeii, remains in question. The new research may help answer this once and for all.
Faces of Oplontis has created a dedicated website and have made their 3D models available to the Internet-going public. They are annotated to highlight and explain the main points of interest. I recommend clicking on the notes, especially for the skulls, because they contain a lot of information we civilians would not recognize from just looking.
Here is Room 10, the skeletons in situ before excavation:
Skull 2, an adult male of middle age (with an very cool unfused metopic suture):
Skull M, a young woman (25-30 years old) whose unborn baby was also a victim of Vulcan’s ire:
Check out the rest on the Faces of Oplontis Sketchfab channel and give them a follow to see more as the study progresses.