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Long-Ago Victim of Vesuvius May Shed Light on Ancient Rome

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HERCULANEUM, Italy — In his last moments, his final heartbeats, a man clutched a leather satchel to his side — perhaps containing his most prized belongings, it is still unknown — before being engulfed by the scalding ash, gas and rock spewing from Mount Vesuvius.

For more than 19 centuries, there was no sign the man had ever existed, until archaeologists discovered his supine skeleton in October as they did work at the waterfront beach of Herculaneum, one of the towns snuffed out, along with thousands of people, in the catastrophic eruption of Aug. 24, 79 A.D.

His are the first human remains uncovered in Herculaneum in about 25 years, an unexpected find that promises to yield new insights into ancient Roman civilization, frozen in time by the volcano’s fury.

“Today it’s possible to do some kinds of analysis that 20, 30 years ago it wasn’t possible to do,” said Pier Paolo Petrone, a forensic anthropologist at the University Federico II of Naples, who has long worked on the site. “For instance, we are studying the DNA of these people. We will tell the story of these people. Herculaneum is an open book.”

Like Pompeii, its more famous neighbor about eight miles to the southeast, Herculaneum has for centuries been a tangible reminder of the fragility of life and human endeavor. Vesuvius buried them along with several other vibrant towns on theBay of Naples, erasing them from the landscape in a matter of hours — and preserving them for future discovery.

“We have a multidisciplinary team working on the site, made up of many specialists that together contribute to better understanding what we find,” said Francesco Sirano, the director of the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum.

“We really do live this site every day as an open-air laboratory,” Mr. Sirano told reporters on Wednesday.

Mount Vesuvius serves as a backdrop to the archaeological site of Herculaneum.Credit…Andreas Solaro/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the coming days, the skeletal remains will be transferred to an anthropological lab on site so that they can be studied, along with the contents of the satchel, which contains a wooden box, for clues to the man’s identity. A small bronze ring was also spied when a tiny camera was gingerly inserted in the satchel.

“We can learn many things from his bones: his exact age, what jobs he may have done, whether he had any illnesses,” said Domenico Camardo, the chief archaeologist of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, an unusual partnership between the local heritage authority and the Packard Humanities Institute of Los Altos, California, which have worked together at the site for 20 years. There is no other public-private archaeological venture of its duration and scale in Italy.

The ancient town lies beneath the modern city of Ercolano, which presents challenges to its preservation, in particular because of erosion from spring waters.

In the 1980s and 1990s, some 300 victims of the eruption were discovered in waterfront warehouses on the same stretch of beach where the man with the satchel was found recently, but the work then was far more involved.Archaeologists made fiberglass casts of each set of remains where it was found.

“That took weeks, even months, of work,” said Mr. Petrone, the forensic anthropologist. “Now with 3-D scans and photogrammetry, you have complete documentation and can make a perfect replica in minutes.”

Visitors viewing human skeletons at the archaeological site of Herculaneum in 2019.Credit…Andreas Solaro/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The newest remains emerged during a complex project to recover the ancient beachfront — hundreds of yards inland from the current shoreline — to make it accessible to the public, possibly by 2024.

The recent workunearthed more than 150 fragments of wood of various kinds, which had been catapulted by the force of the eruption toward the water. Along with sundry branches and trees, archaeologists also found beams, door and window frames, and what Mr. Camardo described as the largest preserved wooden board from the ancient Roman world: a “perfectly preserved” 34-foot plank that took 12 workers to move.

“We think it was probably used in scaffolding for buildings,” he said.

Mr. Petrone said that while new finds at Herculaneum were important from an archaeological, anthropological and historical point of view, the volcanological aspects were equally significant. With its crater just nine miles from the heart of Naples, Vesuvius, which erupted as recently as 1944, remains one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.

“Through the study of these victims, of these effects, you can have an idea of what can happen in the case of a future eruption of Vesuvius,” he said cheerfully. “The volcano is still active, and it is standing in an area with three million people.”

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