Thousands of people fled for their lives from Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted.

Mike Heath

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.5, RH.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2

C3 (D2/6-8): Geo.2, Geo.8, His.1, His.2, His.3, His.14, His.15

NCSS: Time, continuity, and change; People, places, and environments


Enjoy this free article courtesy of Junior Scholastic, the Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.

Pompeii’s Secrets

Scientists are discovering how people lived and died in the ancient Roman city, buried for centuries under the ash of Mount Vesuvius

It was more terrifying than any disaster movie—and absolutely real. In 79 A.D., the volcano Mount Vesuvius on Italy’s western coast unexpectedly erupted. In a matter of hours, the nearby Roman city of Pompeii and its neighbor Herculaneum were buried under tons of ash and volcanic rock. An estimated 2,000 people were killed.

For 17 centuries, Pompeii stayed buried. Since archaeologists began uncovering the site in the 18th century, the world has been fascinated by the unique gaze it has given us into the ancient past.  Last year alone, more than 3 million  people visited the site.

Pompeii may soon attract even more visitors. An ambitious $145 million effort sponsored by the European Union and the Italian government is unlocking more secrets of the city. The Great Pompeii Project, as the effort is known, is discovering fascinating new details about how Pompeians lived—and how they died.

At the same time, the project’s experts are working hard to save the ancient site, which has been ­threatened by centuries of both natural and human damage.

The ultimate goal, project director Massimo Osanna told National Geographic, is to reconstruct ancient Roman life “as though we have taken close-up photographs of a society 2,000 years ago.”

It was more terrifying than any disaster movie—and absolutely real. In 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius, a volcano on Italy’s western coast, suddenly erupted. Over several hours, the nearby Roman city of Pompeii and its neighbor Herculaneum were buried under tons of ash and volcanic rock. An estimated 2,000 people were killed.

For 17 centuries, Pompeii stayed buried. In the 18th century, archaeologists began uncovering the site. Since then, the world has been captivated by the extraordinary look it has given us into the ancient past. Just last year, more than 3 million people visited the site.

Pompeii may soon attract even more visitors. The European Union and the Italian government are funding a $145 million program that plans to reveal more of Pompeii’s secrets. Called the Great Pompeii Project, its mission is to discover interesting new details about how Pompeians lived. It will also learn more about how that disaster killed them.

At the same time, the project’s experts are working hard to save the ancient site. The ruins have been threatened by centuries of both natural and human damage.

The final goal, project director Massimo Osanna told National Geographic, is to re-create ancient Roman life “as though we have taken close-up photographs of a society 2,000 years ago.”

A City Destroyed 

In 79 A.D., Pompeii was a thriving port city and seaside resort of about 12,000 people in the heart of the Roman Empire (see map, below). The city traded with every corner of the empire. Wealthy Romans had vacation homes there. Pompeii’s streets were busy with citizens, their slaves, and traders from all over.

So on the morning of August 24, few Pompeians were probably paying attention to Mount Vesuvius, about 5 miles away. After all, the volcano hadn’t erupted in more than 1,500 years.

Around midday, however, Vesuvius began smoking, then shooting flames into the sky. Soon it started ejecting molten rock and ash in an enormous cloud that blotted out the sun. Tremors shook the earth.

The writer Pliny the Younger watched from Misenum, across the Bay of Naples. “Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker,” he later wrote, “followed by bits of pumice [volcanic rock] and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames.”

By now, thousands of people were fleeing the city in panic. Those who sought shelter there didn’t have a chance. The rain of pumice gathered deadly force, causing roofs to collapse on everyone below.

Shortly after midnight, Vesuvius exploded again, triggering a surge of ash and hot gas of up to 100 miles per hour. Pompeii and Herculaneum were completely swallowed up.

Pompeii was a wealthy port city and seaside retreat of about 12,000 people. It was located in the heart of the Roman Empire (see map, below1). The city traded with every corner of the empire. Rich Romans had vacation homes there. Pompeii’s streets were busy with citizens, their slaves, and traders from all over.

So on the morning of August 24, few Pompeians were probably paying attention to Mount Vesuvius, which was about 5 miles away. After all, the volcano had not erupted in more than 1,500 years.

But around noon, Vesuvius began smoking, then shooting flames into the sky. Soon it started throwing out molten rock and ash in an enormous cloud that blocked out all sunlight. The earth shook.

The writer Pliny the Younger watched from Misenum, across the Bay of Naples. “Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker,” he later wrote, “followed by bits of pumice [volcanic rock] and blackened stones, [burned] and cracked by the flames.”

By then, thousands of frightened people were escaping the city. Those who searched for shelter inside the city did not have a chance. A forceful, deadly rain of pumice fell, causing roofs to collapse on everyone below.

Shortly after midnight, Vesuvius exploded again. This set off a rush of ash and hot gas of up to 100 miles per hour. Pompeii and Herculaneum were completely swallowed up.

De Agostini/Getty Images

Plaster casts capture the forms of Vesuvius’s victims at the moment of death.

Digging Up the Dead

As centuries passed, the locations of the old Roman towns covered by Vesuvius were lost. They became “fabled cities,” says historian John Bodel of Brown University. When workers unexpectedly uncovered part of Herculaneum in 1709, experts knew they had found these almost mythical places again.

But for more than a century, most attempts to excavate the sites were done haphazardly. In 1863, the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli finally began to unearth Pompeii in a systematic way.

His findings were revelations. Sheltered by up to 30 feet of volcanic debris, much of Pompeii had been amazingly preserved. “Vesuvius had frozen a city at a moment in time that could be examined like an insect in amber,” says Bodel. Workers found intact loaves of bread and eggs still in their shells.

As centuries passed, the locations of the old Roman towns covered by Vesuvius were lost. They became “fabled cities,” says historian John Bodel of Brown University. In 1709, workers unexpectedly uncovered part of Herculaneum. Experts knew that they had found these almost legendary places.

But for more than a century, most efforts to dig up the sites were done carelessly. In 1863, the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli finally began to unearth Pompeii in an organized way.

What he found was revealing. Protected by up to 30 feet of volcanic rubble, a lot of Pompeii had been amazingly preserved. “Vesuvius had frozen a city at a moment in time that could be examined like an insect in amber,” says Bodel. Workers found whole loaves of bread and eggs still in their shells.

“Vesuvius had frozen a city at a moment in time...
like an insect in amber.”

The uncovering of Pompeii was “a major event in world history,” Bodel says. Its houses, shops, temples, and thousands of frescoes—paintings on plaster walls—formed the most detailed picture of an ancient Roman city ever found. 

Then there were Pompeii’s dead. The volcanic matter from Vesuvius had covered many victims, then instantly hardened around them. As the bodies rotted, they left behind their skeletons inside the ghostly outline of their figures.

Fiorelli poured plaster into those outlines as if they were an artist’s molds, making plaster casts that preserved the forms. One man curled up in a ball; another reaching up to protect himself; a mother shielding her baby. These images of people at the moment of death bear haunting witness to Pompeii’s fate.

The uncovering of Pompeii was “a major event in world history,” Bodel says. Its houses, shops, temples, and thousands of frescoes—paintings on plaster walls—formed the most detailed picture of an ancient Roman city ever found.

The people who had died there added more details to that picture. The volcanic matter from Vesuvius had covered many victims. Then it hardened around them. Over time, the bodies rotted away. But their skeletons remained inside the ghostly outline of their figures.

Fiorelli poured plaster into those shells as if they were an artist’s molds. Then he made plaster casts that preserved the shapes. One form was a man curled up in a ball. Another reached up to protect himself. A mother shielded her baby. These images of people at the moment of death are haunting proof of Pompeii’s fate.

Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Technicians in Naples use a CT scan to get a look at the bones inside a plaster cast.

Scans Reveal Details

Scientists today are learning even more about the lives of Pompeii’s citizens, thanks to new technology. For example, until recently, there was no way to examine the bones that remain inside the thick plaster casts.

Now, using CT scans (highly detailed 3-D X-rays), technicians can peer into the casts, drawing a clearer picture of those people and what happened to them.

So far, the scans have revealed that Pompeians had strong teeth, suggesting good nutrition. Hundreds of bags of ancient human waste from the city’s sewers also indicate a healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits, nuts, and fish.

In addition, the scans reveal how those Pompeians died: from head injuries caused by falling rock or collapsing buildings.

Scientists today are learning even more about the lives of Pompeii’s citizens, thanks to new technology. For example, until recently, there was no way to examine the bones that remain inside the thick plaster casts.

Now, using CT scans (highly detailed 3-D X-rays), technicians can look into the casts. The scans give a clearer picture of those people and what happened to them.

So far, the scans have revealed that Pompeians had strong teeth, suggesting good nutrition. Hundreds of bags of ancient human waste from the city’s sewers show a healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits, nuts, and fish.

The scans also show that these Pompeians died from head injuries caused by falling rock or collapsing buildings.

“Crisis” in Pompeii

Today, the site is extremely fragile.  Over the years, it has been hit by multiple earthquakes, bombers during World War II (1939-1945), and countless floods. In recent years, its buildings were in danger of crumbling after every hard rainfall.

Today, the site is very fragile. Over the years, it has been damaged by multiple earthquakes, bombs dropped during World War II (1939-1945), and countless floods. In recent years, its buildings have been in danger of crumbling after every hard rainfall.

Pompeii is “the most
important archaeological site
in the Roman world.”

“Pompeii faced crisis on every level,” Osanna, the director of the Great Pompeii Project, recalls. His team of 200 archaeologists, architects, and other specialists is now working to stabilize and restore the ancient site.

“Pompeii faced crisis on every level,” recalls Osanna, director of the Great Pompeii Project. His team of 200 archaeologists, architects, and other specialists is now working to secure and restore the site.

The 99 Percent

Pompeii remains “the most important archaeological site in the Roman world,” says historian Mary Beard of Cambridge University. “Nowhere do we come face-to-face with [the ancient past] in quite this up-close-and-personal way.”

Pompeii has long been where “cutting-edge archaeological techniques are tried out,” Bodel adds. Such methods allow archaeologists to examine how ancient people from sites all over the globe lived.

Our evolving world also changes the way we look at Pompeii. “In the past, people were mostly fascinated by the rich,” says Steven Ellis, an archaeologist who works at the site. “These days, we’re asking about the 99 percent,” he says, meaning the city’s average working people. 

For instance: How diverse was Pompeii? Researchers have found bodies of numerous ethnicities from as far away as present-day France. How many people came to Pompeii as slaves? What were their lives like?

Says Ellis, “There are almost endless questions.”

Pompeii remains “the most important archaeological site in the Roman world,” says historian Mary Beard of Cambridge University. “Nowhere do we come face-to-face with [the ancient past] in quite this up-close-and-personal way.”

For some time now, Pompeii’s been where “cutting-edge archaeological techniques are tried out,” Bodel adds. These methods allow archaeologists to examine how ancient people from sites all over the globe lived.

Our developing world also changes the way we look at Pompeii. “In the past, people were mostly fascinated by the rich,” says Steven Ellis, an archaeologist who works at the site. “These days, we’re asking about the 99 percent,” he says, meaning the city’s average working people.

For instance: How diverse was Pompeii? Researchers have found bodies from many cultures. Some were from as far away as present-day France. How many people came to Pompeii as slaves? What were their lives like?

Says Ellis, “There are almost endless questions.”

CORE QUESTION: Why was uncovering Pompeii “a major event in world history”?

Will Vesuvius Erupt Again?

Mount Vesuvius may have seemed pretty quiet in 79 A.D. But actually, the volcano had erupted often in the distant past. Around 1780 b.c., one nasty explosion wiped out every town and farm within 15 miles.

Since 79, Vesuvius has erupted dozens of times—once, in 1631, killing 6,000 people. The volcano erupted most recently in 1944.

Could it happen again? According to Nature magazine, scientists have detected a rumbling within the past decade that could indicate an active reservoir of magma (molten volcanic matter) in Vesuvius. Experts say that what worries them most are the 3 million people who live in the Naples area. Evacuating them safely in the event of an eruption would be a nightmare. “This is why Vesuvius is the most dangerous volcano in the world,” one local scientist said.

Mount Vesuvius may have seemed pretty quiet in 79 A.D. But actually, the volcano had erupted often in the distant past. Around 1780 b.c., one nasty explosion wiped out every town and farm within 15 miles.

Since 79, Vesuvius has erupted dozens of times—once, in 1631, killing 6,000 people. The volcano erupted most recently in 1944.

Could it happen again? According to Nature magazine, scientists have detected a rumbling within the past decade that could indicate an active reservoir of magma (molten volcanic matter) in Vesuvius. Experts say that what worries them most are the 3 million people who live in the Naples area. Evacuating them safely in the event of an eruption would be a nightmare. “This is why Vesuvius is the most dangerous volcano in the world,” one local scientist said.

The Roman Empire

The city-state of Rome ruled one of the largest empires in history. Pompeii was near the very heart of the Roman world.

The city-state of Rome ruled one of the largest empires in history. Pompeii was near the very heart of the Roman world.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

MAP SKILLS

1. Rome is the capital of what modern country? 

2. The map shows the Roman Empire in what year? 

3. The empire extended over which three continents?

4. The empire surrounded which body of water?

5. The Roman Empire reached northwest to which sea? 

6. In which direction would you travel from Rome to Misenum?

7. The towns destroyed by Mount Vesuvius sat along which body of water?

8. About how many miles separate Herculaneum and the volcano?

9. How many miles separate Pompeii and Rome?

10. The present-day nation of Turkey has coastline on the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. It formed part of what peninsula?

1. Rome is the capital of what modern country? 

2. The map shows the Roman Empire in what year? 

3. The empire extended over which three continents?

4. The empire surrounded which body of water?

5. The Roman Empire reached northwest to which sea? 

6. In which direction would you travel from Rome to Misenum?

7. The towns destroyed by Mount Vesuvius sat along which body of water?

8. About how many miles separate Herculaneum and the volcano?

9. How many miles separate Pompeii and Rome?

10. The present-day nation of Turkey has coastline on the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. It formed part of what peninsula?

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