The photographs from Pompeii in May scorched the Internet. Archaeologists at the site of the Mount Vesuvius eruption of A.D. 79 discovered the skeleton of a man with a giant rock atop his neck. The stark image needed no complicated scientific caption: The man wasn’t burned to death by lava or volcanic ash. He was killed when the mammoth stone slammed into his head, burying him in the earth forever. Experts figured his skull had disintegrated under all that weight and after all those years.
The picture, naturally, spawned all sorts of dark Internet memes, joking about Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.
But then, Pompeii archaeologists in Italy announced Thursday that, lo and behold, they found the man’s skull — completely intact — and concluded that he likely did not die after being crushed by the stone. He probably died of asphyxiation.
About 1,000 skeletons have been found since excavations began at Pompei in the 1700s, but this man’s skeleton was the first one found in at least a decade, said Massimo Osanna, the general director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. He said the discovery of the skull — which was pushed farther down than the rest of the skeleton — was important because it dispelled the hypothesis that the man was fleeing the volcano, only to be killed by a large stone.
“It was probably impossible for him to breathe when he was surrounded by all this pyroclastic flow,” Osanna said, noting that other Pompeii victims likely died from high temperatures.
But how did the skull get disconnected from the neck?
Osanna told The Washington Post that he suspects archaeologists from previous eras, digging less carefully and more hastily in the hunt for treasures, likely separated the skull without knowing. The head was found in a tunnel beneath the rest of the skeleton.
“The [previous archaeologists] didn’t see the skeleton. The excavation in the 18th century was to find something sensational — bronzes, marble objects. They were not so attentive to the context. Now we are carefully putting altogether the rest of bones of this skeleton and from this analysis, we can use DNA to learn the age, sex, ethnicity or even disease.”
Osanna told The Post that there’s been limited excavation at Pompeii since the 1950s. To this day, a large swath of the area has not been touched yet — about 54 of the site’s 163 acres, he said. But last year, archaeologists resumed their efforts in a much more robust campaign to discover more bones and skulls — and more about the lost civilization.
For anyone who’s interested in seeing the man’s remains up close (rather than just sharing the photos as online memes), Osanna said he hopes that tourists might be able to visit the park’s laboratory in a year or two.
Around the world, other experts found the skull’s discovery mesmerizing.
Kristina Killgrove, a bio-archaeologist who has done excavation work in a city near Pompeii that was also engulfed by Mount Vesuvius’s eruption, said the skull’s discovery is startling.
“A lot of skeletons that were excavated hundreds of years ago were found when archaeologists weren’t interested in the human body,” said Killgrove, who wrote a Forbes article detailing her observations of the skull in more depth. “This guy, because he’s not co-mingled with other people, can give us a lot of information about how he died.”
Killgrove said she couldn’t help but notice one thing about his skull.
“His teeth,” she said, “are really nice. They’re worn down but they’re really nice.”