New Evidence Smashes Assumptions of Crushing Death for Pompeii Skeleton

Updated, June 29, 2018: The “Crushed Man” was, in fact, not crushed. Nicholas St. Fleur at the

New York Times reports that further excavations revealed that the man’s intact skull was underneath the stone block. It’s likely that he died of asphyxiation from the erupting volcano. The stone block probably fell onto the body later during or after the eruption. Read our original reporting of the discovery below:

If it hasn’t become a meme yet, it soon will: there’s an image floating around the web about a skeleton with a giant stone block sitting where its skull should be. The picture comes from new excavations at the archaeological site of Pompeii where, in 79 C.E., an eruption of Mount Vesuvius devastated the prosperous ancient Roman city and covered it with ash, freezing the scene of mass chaos in time.

As CNN’s Gianluca Mezzofiore and Valentina DiDonato report, the skeleton tells the story of one poor man pinned beneath the rock. His bones indicate he was at least 30 years old, and lesions on his tibia show he had a bone infection that likely gave him a limp. After surviving the first frightening moments of the eruption, he was probably moving as fast as he could down an alleyway to flee the city when the pyroclastic flow, a high-speed tsunami of lava, ash, rock and gas rushed down the side of the mountain and slammed into Pompeii. The power of the impact is what may have propelled a giant stone block, which could be a doorjamb, onto the victim, crushing his thorax and pinning him beneath the ash for the next 2,000 years.

Yonette Joseph at The New York Times reports that archaeologists have not found the man’s head, but believe it is still underneath the stone. In a statement, Massimo Osanna, general director of the archaeological site, calls the skeleton “an exceptional find” that contributes to a better “picture of the history and civilization of the age.”

The crushed man is not the only recent find in Pompeii, which was rediscovered under the ash in 1748 and has undergone a series of excavations since. This month, researchers released images of a complete outline of a horse that died in its stable, likely while it was being harnessed so its owner could flee. Researchers also revealed that they had found a block of houses with intact balconies, some of which still had amphora, tall two-handed jars used for wine or oil, sitting on them.

As archaeologists bring the latest high-tech gadgetry to the site, new revelations are following. Osanna explains to CNN that an interdisciplinary team of engineers, restorers and archaeologists used drones and 3D scanners to recover the skeleton. Archaeologists had previously dug in the same area, but had not gone deep enough to find the crushed fellow. “This is the first time an excavation happens with all of these tools,” Osanna says.

Researchers have been trying to recreate Pompeii digitally as well—including creating one pretty cool virtual reality visit to a Roman villa.

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