A thrilling and pathetic new archeological find has brought before our eyes the full horror of Herculaneum's destruction in the A.D. 79 eruption of Vesuvius.
At least 80 complete human skeletons, twisted in the agonies of death by fire and asphyxiation, crushed by hurtling debris in the terrible hurricane of glowing ash and stone, have been found at a dig at the Mediterranean seaside town.
Yesterday the National Geographic Society told the story at a press conference. Answering an appeal from the Italian excavators, the society sent anthropologist-archeologist Sara C. Bisel to the spot this summer to save the bones, which had begun to disintegrate from exposure.
"This is definitely a major find," Bisel said, the first actual skeletons of ancient Romans that modern science has got hold of.
Though the disaster that devastated nearby Pompeii has been familiar to historians for centuries, the fate of Herculaneum was unknown until 1709, when a well digger at modern Ercolano accidentally broke through the city's flooring of hardened lava and came upon an ancient theater. Tunnels were dug 35 yards down, and in the succeeding centuries about a third of the old town was uncovered. A treasure in gold and mosaics and household objects was discovered -- but only 10 skeletons. It had been assumed that everyone else had got away safely.
But research at the new dig has revealed, on the ancient beach, a tragedy frozen in time:
A veteran soldier lies slammed with great violence face down into the sand, his sword and purse of gold coins beneath him.
An elegant Roman lady with gem-inlaid gold rings still on her fingers sprawls where she was killed as she ducked into an archway.
A sailor clutches an oar close to his 27-foot boat, found almost intact with its bronze nails, a rare find in itself.
And in one frantic heap cluster the skeletons of six adults and the four children they were trying to protect as they huddled in a chamber where fishing boats were stored under the terraced 60-foot seaside cliffs. A servant girl of perhaps 14 holds the 7-month-old baby of her mistress. Jaws are contorted, legs and arms flail out in the last anguished struggle.
Alongside is a child's little wooden coin box with two coins in it, ripped from her grasp by the blast.
Experts say hundreds more bodies could be uncovered at the site, which came to light two years ago when workers, renewing the dig under Minister of Culture Vincenzo Scotti, needed to stop water seepage at their excavations of a Roman bath and dug a trench along the old beach. There they found the first four skeletons.
"The eruption was 10 times the size of Mount St. Helens," said Haraldur Sigurdsson, an Icelandic specialist in explosive volcanoes, now at the University of Rhode Island. He told how it must have been:
Midday, Aug. 24. With a thunderous roar, Vesuvius, in its worst blowout since the Bronze Age, belched a mighty column of ash and pumice 12 miles into the air, darkening the sun and terrifying everyone in its shadow.
Drifting southeast, he said, the plume dropped a blanket of ash three yards thick on Pompeii, 10 miles away, and two other coastal towns, utterly burying them. Two thousand people were killed. Corpses turned to dust and left only hollow spaces in the hardened lava, later to be recaptured for history as plaster molds.
"But Herculaneum was upwind," Sigurdsson noted, though it was much closer to the volcano than Pompeii, and initially there was no serious fallout -- "maybe eight or 10 inches" -- at the small, affluent seaside resort. It was believed the citizens evacuated the town by nightfall.
Herculaneum's turn came the next day. At dawn, the enormous black column collapsed in the classic second stage of violent eruptions, when the gas content of the molten magma suddenly loses its lift. The huge cloud cascaded from the sky, a red-hot avalanche that boomed down the mountain slope into the town at 180 miles an hour.
It destroyed Herculaneum in five minutes.
It came in waves. The second surge was the most violent, a wall of ash and pumice 20 yards high and more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit. It burst through windows and drove heavy stone furniture across rooms with the window glass literally embedded in it. Bricks, tiles, stones shot like cannonballs down the streets. People strangled on the fiery dust, were crushed, burned, obliterated.
Strange things happened in this chaos. Some vegetables and fruits were actually preserved by the lava. A rope was left intact while a wooden door beside it was burned black.
Survivors of Mount St. Helens reported that in an ash storm "you can't breathe, the inside of your mouth is burned, you hear your hair sizzle," Sigurdsson said. But the clothes are hardly scorched. "It's like a burn from a microwave oven."
Giuseppe Maggi, the excavation director, who had been visiting in New York but came here for the presentation, said no one is quite sure why tradition had it that the town was evacuated. It was not even certain just where the ancient shoreline lay, though it was known to be some distance inland from the present coast, beneath plowed fields and modern villas. It has now been located 500 yards back, under 80 feet of solidified ash.
Scientists speculate that many people must have tried to reach the sea and that perhaps the sailor brought his boat to shore between the surges, hoping to bring off refugees in what we know to be, from accounts by an eyewitness, the writer Pliny the Younger, a violently turbulent surf.
In any case, Bisel showed what scientists today can learn from the skeletons.
So far, 36 remarkably complete bodies have been removed, she said, including 20 adult men and six women. The men averaged 5 feet 7 inches, the women 5 feet 1 1/2 inches. They had fine teeth, averaging only three cavities, and appeared to lead strenuous, healthy lives with fair nutrition. But five of the 26 showed some kind of injury or trauma.
Under a $50,000 preservation program financed by the society, which entered the picture at the request of U.S. Consul General Walter J. Silva in Naples, Bisel is taking apart and reassembling all the bodies, most of which are destined for Herculaneum's new museum.
About the soldier: He was strong, maybe 37, 5 feet 8 1/2, which was tall for the time, had had three front teeth knocked out and once suffered a bad flesh wound on the thigh. As a child he had been deprived of calcium, probably through poverty. The forearm bones were flattened, indicating heavy muscle buildup, possibly from holding sword and shield, and the shoulder crest was bulbous, as if he had thrown something -- a spear? -- many times with a twisting motion. Most of all, his thigh bones showed the muscle development that a horseman would get from clasping a horse with his knees.
"He was a pretty tough character," Bisel observed, "macho, not very good looking. He lost those teeth, and his nose was really quite large. Too bad. But he was well-off, with his scabbard and belt and three gold coins (one depicting the Emperor Nero) and some silver."
Having preserved the skeletons in an acrylic resin solution, she and others will study them for details of the Roman diet and signs of lead poisoning, which some historians believe may have hastened the fall of Rome. Roman waterpipes often were of lead.
Bisel brought the soldier here herself. She will visit relatives in the area through Dec. 31. Until then, the soldier will remain on exhibit at Explorer's Hall, a stranger in a strange land. CAPTION: Picture 1, Skeleton of a man found face down, with his sword at his side, at Herculean, destroyed 1,900 years ago in tyhe eruption of Vesuvius.; Picture 2, The remains of a Roman woman found with gem-studded gold rings. The markings, XX, show where the rings where found on her hand. Photos by Jonathan Blair; Copyright (c) 1982 National Geographic Society