Like many of us, Santa’s elves have their own skeletons
Pompeii is a tableau of disaster. Looming over the ruined city, the half peak of Mount Vesuvius hovers like an unspoken threat. The dead city is now only populated by plaster casts of the victims of the volcano. But it was not always so – Pompeii, in its time, was a bustling port city and died in several steps.
- Past Eruptions
The Vesuvius eruption that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum was not the first, or the last, of Mount Vesuvius’ eruptions. These had been happening all the way back into prehistory, with some smaller eruptions, and some, like the Avellino Eruption, causing mass destruction of Bronze-age settlements and the flight of their inhabitants, shown in thousands of human footprints preserved in the ash.
Tremors in the area around Vesuvius were common, since Vesuvius itself is the product of two tectonic plates meeting. Seventeen years before the eruption, a huge earthquake rocked the region, causing massive damage, particularly to Pompeii. By the time of the eruption, some of the damage still had not been repaired.
- Warning signs
The small earthquakes continued. At one point, 600 sheep died from “tainted air” in the vicinity of the volcano. Meanwhile, the people continued on as before, even becoming used to the tremors. The Roman administrator Pliny the Younger, who wrote our best eyewitness account of the eruption, wrote that the quakes “were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania.”
- Dust Cloud/Raining ash
First, a plume of ash and superheated rock shot up above the mountain. Pliny compared the cloud “of unusual size and appearance” to a giant pine tree that rose in a trunk before branching out. As the cloud cooled, the ash began to fall downwind of the mountain on Pompeii. Tremors continued periodically. Across the Bay of Naples, Pliny the Younger was woken by one such quake. Over the course of the eruption, the ash fall increased until Pliny said he had to periodically shake it off his shoulders to keep from being buried.
- Pliny the Elder to the Rescue
Pliny the Elder (Pliny the Younger’s uncle) was in charge of the Roman fleet at Misenum, a city across the bay from which they observed the first signs of eruption. Soon after, the Elder received a message calling for aid in evacuating the area, and he and his fleet set off to the rescue. During the course of the next day, the Elder setoff in a light craft to rescue a family friend. The boat encountered heavy showers of hot cinders, ash and pumice, so much so that the helmsman told the Elder that they should turn back, to which Pliny the Elder replied “Fortune favors the brave” and ordered them on. Pliny the Elder would die later after spending the night on shore, due to weak lungs and poisonous gas, according to his nephew. His companions escaped on foot with pillows tied to their heads to protect against falling rock.
The rescue operation would have been complicated somewhat by a mini tsunami produced by the eruption, causing waves all along the bay.
- Death Clouds
Ash and falling pumice were not actually the major killers of the eruption. After each cloud (there were several), a cloud of superheated poisonous gas and rock fragments called a pyroclastic surge rushed down the mountain at the surrounding cities, first destroying Herculaneum, and then Pompeii as each cloud rushed in, burning and shattering buildings. Thousands died from suffocation, many hidden in basements. Those in the open would have been incinerated. Soon, a combination of falling ash and surges buried the cities.
Pompeii and Herculaneum lay undiscovered until 1599. At the time, engineers were building a canal to redirect the river Sarno. They ran into a wall. Several walls, actually. They were covered in paintings. An architect was called in who unearthed more paintings, and excavation largely went slowly until the 1700s. Interestingly, much of the original discoveries were intentionally reburied due to sexual content in many paintings and even household objects.