Imagine if what we thought we knew about Pompeii was wrong? An astonishing new discovery just dramatically changed what we know about the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in A.D 79.
Last year while excavations were being done on two villas that had been partially excavated in the 19th century, some interesting things surfaced.
First There Was Pliny The Younger
Up until this point the thinking was that Mt Vesuvius erupted on August 24th 79 A.D. This was based on the writings of 18 year old Pliny the Younger. He had been in Misenum at the home of his uncle, the writer and philosopher Pliny the Elder, when Vesuvius erupted. From the safety of the home he was able to watch everything happening across the Gulf of Naples.
While the Elder raced off in warships to rescue people (and ultimately to his own death) the Younger stayed at home to work on his studies. His written accounts of that day and the days to follow have given us much of the knowledge we have about what happened at Pompeii.
Interestingly up until that point there had been no word for volcano. No one had ever seen one before. Mt Vesuvius was a mountain covered in vineyards and farms. It had never blown before, so had no crater – the top was just the same as any other mountain.
17 years before, on February 5th 62 A.D there was a massive earthquake in Pompeii. Thought to be a 7.5 the earthquake felled buildings and caused much destruction. Seneca the Younger wrote:
This tremor was on 5 February in the consulship of Regulus and Verginius and it inflicted great devastation on Campania… sheep died and statues split. Some people have lost their minds and wander about in their madness.
By 79 A.D much of the restoration had been completed. More earthquakes had occurred, causing damage to buildings, and it is this subsequent repair work that has led to the new discovery.
An Astonishing New Discovery
Archaeologists have discovered charcoal writing on the wall of one of the two villas mentioned above, thought to have been done by a builder or architect working on the home. It reads: XVI K NOV . This means the 16th day before the 1st day of November, or October 17th.
This could have been done in the days before the eruption, possibly as a recording of the work he had completed. Italian authorities say this new discovery rewrites history, changing the belief that the eruption happened on the 24th of August.
The inscription and date was found with other bits of writing/graffiti on the walls of the atrium and corridor of the villa, much of it being quite raunchy, some even obscene. Which was pretty common in Pompeii.
A Question Of Pomegranates
Some scholars have believed for a long time that the date of the eruption was incorrect. In the past calcified remains of fresh pomegranates have been found at Pompeii. This suggests an autumn eruption, as pomegranate trees don’t mature by August instead having a season from October until January or February.
Other Treasures Found In The Villas
Other archaeological finds in the villas include frescoes of the gods Venus, Adonis, Paris and Eros, and mosaics depicting wild animals such as snakes, deer, lions and crocodiles. In one of the villas archaeologists found the skeletal remains of 5 people who had no doubt been hiding from the pumice and ash raining down from the volcano.
How To Get There
Pompeii is a suburb of Naples, easily reached by taking the circumsuviana train from Naples train station to the Pompeii Scavi stop. It is an easy day trip from Rome (only 1 hour and 20 minutes on the high speed train) and is a quick trip by train from Sorrento.
If you take the time to visit Pompeii (highly recommended) after visiting the ruins take the circumsuviana train three stops towards Naples to the Ercolano stop and walk to the ruins at Herculaneum. They are quite different to those in Pompeii, and complete the picture of what life looked like back then and what the homes in Pompeii would have looked like were they still standing. It’s quite incredible.