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.