Ancient History & Civilisation

Making sense of death

As humans, we suffer from the double whammy of being both sentient and mortal. We may attempt to defy our chronological age with Botox and plastic surgery, but whatever we do, we will eventually die. Death is a taboo subject in modern Western society and has largely been removed from view. Denial does not change the fact that our ultimate demise is an unavoidable rite of passage. The most common question I overheard from passing tourists during my years of fieldwork in Pompeii was, ‘So where are the dead bodies?’ Perhaps this can be interpreted as a recognition of a need to view one’s fate rather than just a gratuitous act of voyeurism.

The human remains from Pompeii have always been a major attraction for visitors to the site. They have been one of the key factors that separated Pompeii from Herculaneum, which did not have a culture of bodies due to the minimal number of skeletons found there before the 1980s. There are several reasons for the fascination with the remains of individuals who perished in a mass disaster almost two millennia ago. One of the most important is that the event that killed the victims was also responsible for preserving their living context, from the most humble domestic items to substantial, largely intact structures. Another is that the negative forms of a number of bodies were preserved, which when cast, can provide a detailed image of individuals at the time of their death. Visitors can gaze at death without seeing the actual body. These human remains are also more accessible than those from other contexts, like Egyptian tombs or plague pits. This is because Pompeii is an aboveground site where we can see all the minutiae that made up a lifestyle to which a modern Western person could easily relate. Ultimately, the human remains from Pompeii are compelling because of their context. They are not too confronting because they are removed by time and, in the case of casts, they present a tangible reflection of identifiable individuals without the disturbing reality of soft tissue.

This book explores the fascination with human remains from Pompeii from the first discovery of skeletons in the eighteenth century to the realization that the forms of the bodies were also preserved.

The first part of the book considers why there was so much interest in this material and yet only minimal research was undertaken until the latter part of the twentieth century. The sample of available skeletons was severely compromised, partly because a number of the skeletons were used to create vignettes of the tragic last moments of victims. Initially, human remains were not considered to have much other value than as props, both physically and for the creative reconstruction of the lives of the victims. There was no appreciation of their intrinsic research value. As a result, many of the skeletons were disarticulated over time and stored in ancient buildings.

The second part of the book deals with the information that the skeletal material and casts can provide. It is particularly concerned with the problems associated with a compromised sample. Some scholars abandoned this material as a result of the post-excavation dismembering of the collection. The value of the Pompeian material was also considered to be diminished by the discovery of a large number of skeletons in the nearby site of Herculaneum in the 1980s. Despite their proximity and destruction as a result of the AD 79 eruption of Mt Vesuvius, Pompeii is essentially a different site and the finds from one cannot be seen as interchangeable with the other. The Pompeian material provides unique information and with some effort yields incomplete but tantalizing glimpses into the lives and deaths of the inhabitants of this town.

This book is more about storytelling and investigative procedure than an attempt to produce the definitive work on the human remains from Pompeii. The most vital part of the process of studying human skeletal material is the collection of basic data from measurements and observations. These data and their use to establish the sex ratio, range of ages-at-death, general health and population affinities of the sample, provide baseline information that underpins all future studies of the material at the macroscopic, microscopic and molecular level. The limitations of the techniques and the problems associated with dealing with biological material are also discussed. Some of the recent literature on the Vesuvian sites gives the impression that the evidence provides us with more certain information about the past than is actually the case. Knowledge of the limitations of the evidence and the techniques that are used for its interpretation is an essential tool for an assessment of claims about the victims of the eruption. The level of information presented enables the non-specialist to appreciate the degree of uncertainty associated with skeletal identification and should help determine when the evidence has been pushed beyond its potential and speculation begins.

The approach taken in this book is multidisciplinary. There is no assumed specialist knowledge and, while this is not a textbook, the information required to understand and critically assess this and other works, especially in osteoarchaeology, is explained in detail in the text. A glossary and illustrations have been included to make the book easy for the non-specialist to use without having to resort to other sources.

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