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Saturday, February 14, 2009

2. Herculaneum

By Rossella Lorenzi

Since it was discovered in the 18th century buried under 75 feet of solidified ash, the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum has always been overshadowed by Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius.

Yet, in ancient times, Herculaneum was a dream town. Overlooking the Bay of Naples, it was the aristocratic dwelling of a wealthy elite, a cluster of fabulous villas and gardens.

"Herculaneum could not stand out in all its importance because of problems with digging. The resistance of the volcanic material made it very difficult to excavate, not to mention the urban settlements that had grown above the ancient town.
There is still a lot to discover about this place," archaeologist Mario Pagano, director of the town's excavation, said.

Indeed, a 18-year dig led by Pagano near the ancient seashore has provided the conclusive evidence on how the victims of history's most famous volcanic explosion died.

The excavation uncovered 300 bodies, a significant and precious sample of Herculaneum's population, which at the time of the eruption in A.D. 79 numbered about 5,000.

Pagano's team found bodies of adults on the surface, many carrying money and valuable objects; deeper down, they found children and newborns.
Most of all, Pagano found 80 nearly intact bodies trapped by death as they packed into 12 storerooms on the beach to escape the molten lava and boiling mud pouring down from the crater.

It has long been assumed that the victims died from asphyxiation. But a study of the bone fractures and the position of the remains, indicates that the fugitives died instantly from extreme thermal shock when the surge hurled down on the beach area, covering the seven miles to the coast in about four minutes. Herculaneum was baked in seconds.

"These 80 people do not display any evidence of voluntary self-protective reaction or agony contortions. They were killed before they had time to display a reaction, in less than a fraction of a second," said study author Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, a volcanologist with the Vesuvius Observatory.

The finding prompted a team of archaeologists, vulcanologists, geologists and anthropologists to draw a diary of Herculaneum's last hours.