Human Remains in Pompeii: The Body Casts

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muleteer

The Muleteer-one of the 100 casts taken of Vesuvius’s Victims in Pompeii.
Copyright image by Natasha Sheldon. All rights reserved.

In 79AD, Vesuvius erupted, destroying the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. In Herculaneum, the inhabitants were incinerated when a single pyroclastic surge hit the town.

But in Pompeii, the eruption preserved as well as destroyed.

Archaeologists have discovered approximately 1150 bodies since excavations of the city began.

The unique set of circumstances created by the eruption has allowed archaeologists to bring one hundred of those bodies ‘back to life’ in the form of casts that preserve the body at the moment of death.

 Vesuvius: Destroyer and Preserver

The eruption of Vesuvius began at around lunchtime, arguably on the 24th August 79AD.

In the early hours of the following morning, the eruption reached its fatal, concluding stages. Three pyroclastic surges- a mix of hot gases and ashes from the collapsing eruption column- travelling at 100kph finally reached Pompeii. The first surge just skimmed the city walls but the final one overwhelmed the whole city, finishing off anyone still alive.

But the surges also preserved. For its rain of fine ash fell over Pompeii, covering the city until only the remains of its tallest buildings were visible above the debris.

Buried within the ash fall were the inhabitants of the town. A shell of pumice that allowed them to slowly decayed in the usual way covered those who perished in the early stages of the eruption.

tecnica calchi G. Fiorelli

Diagram demonstrating how casts were formed-and Fiorelli’s technique of capturing the body shape within. Copyright image courtesy of Pier Paolo Petrone, used with permission.

But the bodies of victims of the pyroclastic surges had a different fate. For the fine ash fall encased their bodies, hardening to form a porous shell. As the soft tissues of the bodies decayed, they leached away through this later. But by then, the hardened ash had captured and preserved their final postures at the moment of death.

 Waking the Dead

In 1777, the remains of a young woman were found at the Villa Diomede. As well as her skeleton, the outline of her breasts and body shape was clearly visible in the material packed beneath her.

Other examples were discovered as exploration continued. But the excavators had no way of preserving them. But in 1864 Giuseppe Fiorelli, the director of the excavations, discovered a technique that allowed the body shapes to be preserved.

Fiorelli’s excavators discovered hollow pockets in the ash in a lane named the Alley of the Skeletons. Inside, it was possible to make out human bones. But instead of digging through the ash to remove them, Fiorelli instructed the diggers to pour plaster into the hollow.

They left the plaster to harden for a few days, then chipped off the outer layers of hardened ash. What was revealed was a detailed plaster cast  of the body of a citizen of Pompeii at the moment of death.

Modern Developments in Casting

Archaeologists have looked at other ways of recreating the appearance of Pompeii’s dead. In 1984 at Oplontis, a skeleton was cast using resin rather than plaster. Wax was injected into the void around the victim’s skeleton, left to harden, and then coated in plaster. Once the ‘plaster cast’ had set, the wax was melted out and replaced with liquid epoxy resin- to produce a durable, transparent cast, which allowed the victim’s jewellery and hairpin to be viewed in situ on the body.

But this cast remains unique – for despite its many advantages, resin casting is tricky and expensive. For now, plaster casting continues to be used where appropriate.

“The technique remains the best to obtain perfect replicas of the victim’s bodies.” explained anthropologist Pier Paolo Petrone in an interview with Decoded Past.

In a 2010 interview with the BBC, Stefania Giudice, a conservator from Naples national archaeological Museum described how modern preservers cast new finds. The process is by no means simple. Plaster has to be mixed to an exact consistency; thick enough to support the skeletal frame but not so thick it obliterates the fine details of the cast. It then needs to be carefully poured.  ‘The bones are very brittle,’ explained Giudice, ‘so when we pour in the plaster we have to be very careful, otherwise we might damage the remains and they would be lost to us forever.’

As a bonus, the visual information from the external features of the casts can now be supplemented by other means. “nowadays we can better adopt X-ray techniques like 3D-CT scan to investigate the human content of plaster casts.” said Pier Paolo Petrone.

Cast of little Boy from the House of the Golden Bracelet. The young age of the child, and the amount of detail preserved makes this one of the most moving of the casts.
Picture by Fer.Filol.

Human Archaeology

Out of the 1150 bodies recovered from Pompeii, in all only 100 have been preserved in cast form. Not only humans but also pigs and a dog complete with teeth and collar have been successfully recreated.

For the experts involved in the study of these remains, there is no doubt that they are dealing with the remains of real people-even if much of what remains of their humanity is in plaster form.

Looking closely at the details of many of the casts it is not hard to see why.  Details of  hairstyles, clothing-even facial features are preserved. One of the most affecting is that of a four-year-old boy found at the House of the Golden Bracelet. Part of what is presumed to be a family group, he was found alongside an adult male and female-with a younger child still on her lap. The little boy’s clothing is clearly visible as are his peaceful facial features.

Human Archaeology in Pompeii

“It can be very moving handling these remains when we apply the plaster,” said Stefania Giudice, “Even though it happened 2,000 years ago, it could be a boy, a mother or a family. It’s human archaeology, not just archaeology.”

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© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

Comments

  1. says

    am not a citizen of Pompeii am from Africa but whenever i look to what happened to Pompeii i only fell as if its present , i just hear and imagine the sound of little children,pregnant ladies . strong men of Pompeii in chaos but honestly nothing changes petty, but believe that their souls are the ones which build up the Pompeii we have today and the people we lost are among us now and the past always makes the present farm, may all RIP.

  2. NIcholas says

    Interesting from a scientific and archaeological standpoint, but even 2,000 years later, these casts still contain the remains of HUMAN BEINGS. Treat them with dignity, photograph them, create replicas even, but then BURY them, don’t put them out for gawking tourists to look at. Say prayers over them – Pagan, Jewish, Christian – and let them rest!

        • Gary says

          Yes they contain remains. You can see when you visit Pompeii the bones from some toes stick out of casting. It is very frustrating when I hear people talk about these things like just castings. The bodies are still in them, I have pictures where the casting didnt go all the way into the mouth and you can see teeth and bones. There is no doubt that they are still in them. I agree that they need to make molds of castings and put the dead to rest

    • Girlie Girl says

      I understand where you’re coming from, but there are no bodies. The bodies decayed, leaving hollowed cavities in the shapes of the bodies that decayed.

    • Marko Polo says

      Are you serious right now? It is a body, and we should study them. Why are you so concerned with their humanity? Do you think the dead will care?

    • Chloe says

      For the context of Italian culture, the display of human remains is actually quite appropriate. In fact, it was one of many customs in which they practised until health regulations banned the practices. in the early 20th century, it was common practice to dress up dead family members and take memorable pictures of them. You can tell that they are dead because the family is looking at the camera, while the dead member stares at nothing. I know it sounds disturbing but it’s the truth.

      You could argue that it’s disturbing for tourists to see dead bodies and that it shouldn’t be allowed, but your opinion is based on ethnocentric perspective. As a religious person you may see the need to bury the dead bodies as a rite to those who have passed on and from that moment on leave them undisturbed, but that is only relevant to your own religion. In Italy it was actually a sign of respect that you continued to interact with the dead in such a loving way before having to shove them underground. Just consider the faith of New Zealanders that keep dead family members in their house for a week (this doesn’t apply to all New Zealanders).

      While I understand that you are respecting the dead by asking that they be buried, you are disrespecting Italians by stating that they are not allowed to look at their dead ancestors. I do not agree nor disagree with the practice, but I say because it is within their country that we respect their traditional customs.

  3. Deana says

    I just love learning about ancient things including the story Pompeii. All tho it is very sad to think about but I am very fascinated by the whole story to know even 2000 years later all the people of Pompeii can still be remembered and even worshiped by millions of us till this day.

  4. Natasha Sheldon says

    The question of whether or not the casts contain bodies is largely a matter of semantics. While the actual soft tissues of the remains do not survive, what does remain is the skeleton. The most important factor is, the casts preserve the shape of the body at the moment of death-allowing us to learn a great deal about life and death in Pompeii. The very fact that the shape and form of individuals is preserved gives these remains an added humanity.

  5. Walt says

    I’m not clear on something. The article suggests, where the jewels and necklace were preserved in situ on the body, and the picture of the process of Fiorelli’s technique of capturing the body shape within, suggest that the skeleton was somehow suspended in the void made between it and the body that the ash had formed around??
    Would not the bones fall in a pile at the bottom of each void as the body disintegrated?

      • Natasha Sheldon says

        Hi Conrad,

        The bodies in the casts wouldn’t have been lying on the 79AD ground level-they would have been resting on the layers of pumice that fell earlier in the eruption. So they would have been encased all the way round the body.

    • Natasha Sheldon says

      No, the picture is just showing the relative position of the skeleton at the time of death. Naturally the bodes would ‘drop’ as the flesh decomposed. But any items on the body such as jewels, metal objects would stay relatively in situ.

      • KT says

        I have always wondered how Fiorelli found or understood that some of the ash with holes in was actually a human. What made him look into the holes I wonder and how many others were destroyed in earlier excavations, as the actual remains would have surely been difficult to find. Are there pictures of the ash before it was worked on and plaster poured into the holes. I see plants were preserved but are there pictures of other finds? If so where would I look. Many thanks

  6. JMS says

    Thanks for the informative blogpost. I was most intrigued by the “arguably August 24, 79″ dating, and found it intriguing that more recent archaeology reveals people in Pompeii wearing Fall/Winter clothing and eating or storing foods already harvested (e.g., olives – olive oil), suggesting Vesuvius erupted in October rather than August of 79..

  7. Rebekah awesomeness says

    It was ok but to little picture and a little picture and a lot of words which not everyone (studen) would like it and would find it boring sorry about it but it is the from my opinion

  8. bobby harris says

    I have been to pompeii about I think 2 times and visited pompeii and seen the victims I came face to face with real human people of thier time it struck me as like wow it’s like I met someone I didn’t know from the past like they are trying to tell me something with thief facial expressions i know all about pompeii and its final hours and even what they were doing or did during the eruption of Vesuvius on Aug 24 AD 79 and how they all came to an end and everything of course I had people telling me hey go back to.Naples and work at pompeii as a English speaking guide for visitors to pompeii and take them through time And explain to them what I already know and all that I said yeah but have no connection of any kind to get me there oh well i had a great time there love to go back again and spend more time at pompeii and do more too

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