National News

He Died at Pompeii, but His Head Wasn’t Crushed by a Block

He was known across the internet as “Pompeii’s Unluckiest Man.” But the story that spread about his demise may have been greatly exaggerated, a new finding suggests.

Posted Updated

Nicholas St. Fleur
, New York Times

He was known across the internet as “Pompeii’s Unluckiest Man.” But the story that spread about his demise may have been greatly exaggerated, a new finding suggests.

In May, archaeologists uncovered the ancient remains of a man who had been seemingly crushed by a flying boulder while fleeing from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Only his skeletal legs and lower torso protruded from beneath the 600-pound block.

At the time, the team reported that a volcanic cloud had launched a stone door jamb toward the man, decapitating him. What appeared to be the Wile E. Coyote-esque nature of the man’s final moments made him an instant, meme-worthy celebrity some 2,000 years after his death.

But further digging has unearthed the man’s intact skull with his mouth wide open (and full of teeth), suggesting he was not crushed by a volcanic projectile. The skull and the man’s upper torso and arms were found about 3 feet nearly directly below the rest of the body and the gigantic stone. The team said they knew the bones belonged to the same person because of their proximity to each other and because the two halves matched up. The archaeologists from the Pompeii Archaeological Park announced their finding Thursday.

“The death of the victim arrived not because of the block falling on the skull,” said Massimo Osanna, the director of the Pompeii archaeological site. “Our new hypothesis is that he died from asphyxiation from the pyroclastic flow.”

The team had already determined that the man, thought to be around 35 years old, had a physical defect that caused him to limp. It is possible the disability slowed him down, making him more vulnerable to the incoming noxious gas and ash. He was one of about 2,000 known victims from the eruption. Most of the people were either flash-heated to death from the pyroclastic flow or died from asphyxiation.

They also found that the man had a small sack with an iron key, about 20 silver coins and two bronze coins.

The team thinks the upper part of the man’s torso became separated from the lower half sometime from 1748 and 1815 when Naples was under the control of the Bourbon dynasty. During this time, archaeologists often dug tunnels into the ash. Osanna and his team thinks the excavators may have dug a tunnel beneath the skeleton which eventually collapsed, causing the skull and upper torso to fall.

The team is not sure when the block fell over the body. One hypothesis is that the man was in or near a building during the eruption when he suffocated and died. The walls — and the large stone block — may have collapsed at the same time or later and fallen over the deceased body.

“The surprise for us was that the skull was intact and it was not crushed by the block,” Osanna said. “Now that we have the complete skeleton we can understand a lot of things.”

Though the skull has some fractures on it, Osanna said that he and his team plan on analyzing it for DNA in hopes of learning more about the man’s ancient past before his fretful final moments.

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.