ROME — It is traditionally believed that the life of the ancient Pompeians was tragically cut short on August 24, 79 AD, when Vesuvius unleashed its fury, suffocating Pompeii and other cities along its perimeter with volcanic debris.
A study published Thursday by Italian authors gives weight to theories that shift the date of the eruption by two months, to late October or even early November. It cites — among other evidence — the discovery made during a recent excavation of a charcoal inscription scribbled on a wall on October 17, 79 AD.
“That inscription is certainly dated after August 24,” the date used by generations of scholars, based on an account of Roman author Pliny the Younger who witnessed the eruption, said Giovanni P. Riccardi, an associate researcher of the eruption. Vesuvius Observatory of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, and one of the authors of the study. The later dating, he added, confirmed other evidence that has emerged over the years, challenging the August dating.
Since 1748, when the first excavations began, the ancient city of Pompeii has captured the imagination of the people as a testament to the caprice of nature and the fragility of humanity.
In their introduction to the study, the scientists note that nearly 2,000 years after the eruption, the seduction of Pompeii has inspired movies and television series; art, including Andy Warhol’s pop version of “Vesuvius”; and music, such as the 2013 hit “Pompeii” by British rock band Bastille.
Over the years, excavations in the buried city have provided insight into the lives of the ancient Romans, and new technology has provided even more detailed clues about their lives, including culinary habits.
Research at the site, said Sandro de Vita, a co-author working at the Vesuvius Observatory, has also provided additional hints of later dating, from the discovery of quintessential autumn fruits — such as walnuts, chestnuts and pomegranates — to wine already sealed in dolia or terracotta containers, suggesting the grape harvest was over.
On-site excavations also revealed that braziers were in use at the time of the eruption and that some of the victims were wearing heavy clothing, which can still be seen in plaster casts. “All this offers a different interpretation than what Pliny wrote,” he said.
Mr. Riccardi noted that there are no original copies of Pliny’s letter and that it has only been preserved through copies made in the Middle Ages, meaning that slightly different versions of the same text, with different dates, exist. .
The August 24 date comes from a copy of Pliny’s letter in the Medicea Laurenziana library in Florence, the oldest known copy. “Just because it’s older, it’s oddly considered more reliable. But this is certainly not the way to treat a historical fact,” said Mr. riccardi.
Biagio Giaccio, another co-author with the Italian National Research Council, said some historians believe that the monks who wrote the Florence version by copying the text wanted to associate the eruption with an ancient Roman festival known as the mundus, celebrated on August 8. 24.
The Romans believed that on that day a circular crater leading to the underworld was opened, allowing souls to emerge.
But the charcoal inscription sparked debate when it was found in 2018 on a wall of the so-called Huis Met de Tuin, which opened to the public last year.
It was probably scribbled by a worker who was restoring the villa at the time of the eruption and reads: “XVI K Nov in[d] ulsit pro masumis esurit[ioni],” which the study authors translated as, “The sixteenth day before the November calends, he indulged in excessive food.” The date corresponds to October 17.
“The idea that the disaster happened in the fall is old news, but if they could link it to further scientific questions about the eruption, that could be interesting,” Mary Beard, a Cambridge classics professor, said in a statement. e-mail.
Further questions about what Vesuvius might tell us led to the study, said Mario A. Di Vito, another co-author, noting that the dating problem was just one of many discussed in the article, published in Earth Science Reviews.
“We wanted to take stock of all the available knowledge” about Vesuvius, and then address the outstanding issues that remain to be addressed with further studies,” he said. For example, he said more needs to be known about the seismicity that occurred during the earthquake, as well as “secondary phenomena” such as debris flows in nearby towns like Amalfi “which had a huge impact.”
A multidisciplinary team analyzed the eruption “hour by hour,” tracing its effects both near and far, he said, noting that the study was part of a 2021 project led by the National Institute of Geophysics that built on so four decades of research.
And it’s far from over.
“The dating question is sensational,” he said. But the article wants to show “that there are certainly many outstanding issues to be solved”.