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How Philips scanners brought Pompeii to life

Using technology to unearth secrets of the past



Thirty-three kilometers of ash, stones and deadly fumes spewing into the air; 1.5 million tons of pyroclastic matter raining down every second; thousands of people crushed and buried under meters of debris; two towns wiped from the map.

Everyone knows what happened when Mount Vesuvius erupted over Herculaneum and Pompeii in 79AD.

Or at least they think they do.

Because while the tales of the event itself are true, invariably the tales of those who perished in it are not. Over the centuries, as the tragedy captured public and scientific imagination, the victims’ stories and lives were imagined, then reimagined, then retold, reworked and remade, until they were nothing more than ghostly myths superimposed onto people who never really existed.


In the 30 years I have been an archeologist in Pompeii, it is something that has always troubled me and something I have longed to correct.


Finally, this dream became real last year when, as part of the hugely ambitious Great Pompeii Project (a quest to repair the whole of Pompeii), the Archaeological Superintendence of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabia began the Pompeii Cast Restoration Project, restoring 86 plaster casts that had first been created by archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli back in 1863.


Fiorelli had been excavating Pompeii when he realized the layers of hardened pumice and ash had acted like concrete – encasing their victims’ bodies, hardening around them and staying solid as the corpse decayed inside. By pouring plaster into the remaining void – now just containing bones – Fiorelli created perfect casts of skeletons in the shape they were in at the time of death.


Though those casts had inevitably degraded in the 150 years since, experts on the project spent months painstakingly restoring them, before gently carrying each one on specially made stretchers across the sprawling renovation site and placing them in a makeshift ‘examination’ tent. In this tent a Philips SpA Healthcare 16-layer CT scanner was waiting, complete with Dr. Giovanni Babino, a trained radiologist, ready to scan the casts.


It was a transformative moment both for me and for archeology as a whole. Prior to this, any bones available for study had been subject to overzealous digging and underzealous care back in early excavation; some bones were even used for vignettes given to visiting dignitaries, before being ushered into storage as large disarticulated piles. As such, most of my research was based on ‘groups’ of bones – left and right pelves or left and right femora – rather than on individual skeletons. While this did allow statistical studies on age-at-death, sex, general health, pathology and population affinities of each sample, I had been unable – before the moment of cast scanning – to test out these theses or build a more complete picture.

Naturally, getting the casts in the scanner wasn’t always easy. CT scanners – with an aperture of just 70 centimeters diameter – are designed for people to be lying down, straight, arms and legs neatly by their sides. The tragic victims of Pompeii did not die like this; many dying as they fell, in terror and in awkward poses, limbs flexed from pressure and heat, and so a number of the casts could only partially fit inside the scanner. Another unfortunate (though interesting) discovery was that some of the casts, especially those made in the 19th and early 20th centuries, were missing a number of bones, presumably removed by restorers before the casts were made.


What we could see was still enough though. Before the scanner returned to the Sorrento hospital who loaned it to us, we looked at 18 casts (including one dog and a pig) and gathered revolutionary new information. We confirmed what I suspected about the general health and diseases of people living at the time; we saw many of the victims’ teeth were in good condition, despite some gum disease, indicating they ate very little sugar compared to now; and we even saw the shape of the clothes the victims were wearing, like how a young boy’s tunic was buckled and bunched around his waist.

All these findings have not only given us a clearer glimpse of the past and given archeology an innovative new process, it’s given something even greater: it’s given the victims of Pompeii some more of their lives back.


Find out more about Philips’ work at Pompeii

Dr. Estelle Lazer


Estelle Lazer is an Honorary Research Associate in Ancient History at the University of Sydney and has taught archaeology, anatomy and physical anthropology at the University of Sydney, University of NSW and the University of Technology, Sydney. Her research interests include forensic archaeology, Antarctic archaeology and cultural heritage management. She has spent numerous field seasons working on the human skeletal remains from Pompeii. Her current research project involves the use of CT scans and X-ray analysis to interpret the human skeletons preserved within the casts of the Pompeian victims.

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