It’s hard to look at the dozens of human forms that litter Pompeii, preserved in ash for thousands of years, and not be moved by the story they tell. A crouching figure. Another in the fetal position. A mother reaching out to her child.
The people within those forms are long since gone, but now CAT scans are discovering the individuals inside and giving archaeologists a tantalizing look at their lives.
Pompeii was buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE. It’s thought that 20,000 people fled and survived the natural disaster, but 2,000 stayed behind, The Telegraph noted. When the volcano spewed ash and toxic fumes over city, they perished in droves.
The CAT scans are revealing two things about those who stayed home when Vesuvius blew: they were in excellent health and on that fateful day, were killed by falling debris.
— Archaeology Magazine (@archaeologymag) October 1, 2015
A team that includes archaeologists, anthropologists, radiologists, dentists, and computer engineers is trying to piece together the lives of these people — their habits, jobs, class, and diet, AVAX News reported. So far, they’ve scanned 30 men, women, and children who were killed that day in 79 CE.
The research is groundbreaking, said Pompeii’s archaeological superintendent Massimo Osanna.
“The research is a big step forward in our understanding of the Roman world. Exceptional findings are emerging about their age, sex, social status and dietary habits.”
The casts that underwent CAT scans are among the 86 restored this summer, 20 of which are now on display at Pompeii, the Agenzia Giornalistica Italia news agency reported. All 86 will eventually go through the scanner, including Pompeii’s most heart-breaking figures: a woman holding a toddler in her lap.
When ash rained down on Pompeii, it buried those 2,000 residents. Over time, that ash turned into pumice, enclosing their bodies in a hardened tomb. The bodies inside gradually decomposed, leaving only bones behind inside the hardened cavities. By the 19th century, archaeologists chose to preserve these remains by pouring plaster inside; once it hardened, they chipped the pumice away and the cast was removed.
The casts revealed facial expressions and even clothes, but they didn’t show teeth and bone, The Local added. But now, these casts have gone through the CAT scanner to reveal those long lost details.
Each scan shows individual Pompeii residents in alarming and decidedly human detail: skulls, straight teeth, rib cages, the hollows of eye sockets. It’s almost possible to imagine what they may have looked like in life.
From these scans, the team has learned that the people who lived in Pompeii were in remarkably good health. Most notably, their teeth were in better shape than ours — without toothbrushes, toothpaste, or a neighborhood dentist.
“They have really good teeth – they ate a diet that contained few sugars, and was high in fruit and vegetables,” said orthodontist Elisa Vanacore.
Alongside the low-sugar, high-fiber Mediterranean diet, the air and water in Pompeii was also high in fluorine, which kept cavities at bay.
— Loreto Bello Gude (@loretobgude) September 30, 2015
But in a more morbid detail, the CAT scans revealed that those who stayed in Pompeii when the volcano erupted died violent deaths. Archaeologists have long believed that people died of suffocation, but the victims’ fractured skulls tell a different story. They were likely killed when masonry and other debris fell onto them from homes, taverns, public bath houses, and other buildings, as their beloved city fell to pieces around them.
These remarkable CAT scans aren’t the only Pompeii related news of late. Archaeologists just found a pre-Roman, 2,000-year-old tomb that survived Pompeii’s construction, its excavation and then looting, and shelling during World War II.
For more pictures, click here.
[Photos Courtesy Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images]