Pompeii and Vesuvius

The rediscovery of Pompeii initially happened by chance - in 1599 - when Domenico Fontana (an architect) was called in to investigate why workers digging an underground channel to divert the Sarno River (now the most polluted in Europe) had uncovered ancient walls covered with inscriptions and paintings:

In 1594 Count Muzzio Tuttavilla decided to build an aqueduct to carry water from the river Sarno to his villa at Torre Annunziata at the foot of Vesuvius.  As the workmen were digging along the southern slopes of the volcano they uncovered ruined buildings.  They even turned up an inscription on which was written decurio Pompeis.  This inscription, which referred to a town councillor (decurion) at Pompeii, was believed to come from a villa belonging to Pompey the Great.  The matter was soon forgotten.  A century later a well was being dug when once again inscriptions were brought to the surface, including one that referred to Pompeii.  Again nothing was done.  (Pompeii, by Peter Connolly, page 12.)

The site was intentionally explored hundreds of years later, in 1748, after treasures had been found at the ancient site of Herculaneum (also destroyed by Vesuvius in the 79 A.D. eruption):

In spite of these two discoveries Pompeii was not the first of the buried towns to be excavated.  In 1710, thirteen kilometers further up the coast at Resina, a peasant was digging another well in which he discovered large slabs of marble.  A local nobleman seeing the marbles realized at once what they were and bought the land.  Herculaneum, one of the buried towns, had been discovered.  A great treasure hunt began.  (Connolly, page 12.)

How many years passed before Pompeii was excavated?

For nearly forty years Herculaneum was robbed.  Its treasures went to adorn noble houses.  When this excavation proved difficult, people remembered the other finds.  On 23 March 1748, digging began at Pompeii.  (Connolly, page 12.)

Not until Guiseppe Fiorelli took over Pompeii's excavations (after Garibaldi had united Italy and the power struggles in Naples were over) did discoveries in Pompeii proceed in a scientific manner.  Fiorelli is most famous for casting the dead residents of Pompeii:

Perhaps Fiorelli is best remembered for his plaster casts of the dead.  Many skeletons were found at Pompeii.  The fascinating thing was not so much the skeleton as the imprint of the body which was shown in the ashes.  When people who were caught by the eruption died, the ashes and pumice settled around their bodies.  Then the rain came which washed more ash down to fill in the cracks between the pumice stones.  This then hardened to seal in the bodies.  In time the flesh and clothing decayed and disappeared leaving only the bones, but every detail of the body was imprinted in the ashes.  Fiorelli invented a method of casting copies of the bodies by pumping a type of plaster into the cavity left by the body.  This process has since been used to cast doors, shutters and even tree roots.  (Conolly, page 12.)

Some of the plaster castings (see Pompeii, page 13, for illustrations) yielded surprising results:

The process was used to fill a cavity discovered during the excavations of the house of Vesonius Primus.  When the plaster cast was taken out it was found to be a dog complete with collar.  It had been tethered by a chain in the atrium of the house.  As the ashes had come in through the opening in the roof they gradually began to fill the room.  The poor creature had climbed up higher and higher until his chain was stretched taut.  Then, still struggling to get free, he had been buried alive.  (Conolly, page 12.)

Many people were also killed as ashes and gas from the volcano filled their lungs. 

See, also:

People of Pompeii

The Last Day of Pompeii

Pompeii - While Vesuvius Erupts

Final Moments of Pompeii

Death of People in Pompeii

Media Credits

Clip from "Pompeii:  The Last Day," a docudrama produced by the BBC (in association with TLC/NDR) and co-produced in association with France 2.  Original air date, on BBC One, was October 20, 2003. 

Copyright BBC, all rights reserved.  Clip provided here as fair use for educational purposes and to acquaint new viewers with the program.

The film is based, in part, on Pliny the Younger's letters about the Vesuvius eruption.  It uses computer-generated images to recreate what the eruption must have been like for the residents of Pompeii.  Online, via BBC's Channel at YouTube.

Written by:    
Edward Canfor-Dumas

Peter Nicholson

Alisdair Simpson

Tim Pigott-Smith (Pliny the Elder)
Alex Furguson (Pliny the Younger)
Katherine Whitburn (Julia)
Jim Carter (Polybius)


To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"Pompeii and Vesuvius" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Nov 21, 2019.
Awesome Stories Silver or Gold Membership Required
Awesome Stories Silver or Gold Membership Required
Show tooltips