A Glimpse Into Pompeii’s Terrifying Final Moments

Around noon on a day late in 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius began to rumble and erupt. Ash and pumice rained over the cities near the volcano around the Bay of Naples, and waves of toxic gasses and fast-moving pyroclastic flows sealed the denizens’ fate. As the third and final episode of the docuseries Pompeii: The New Dig reconstructs, the final moments of Vesuvius were a terrifying but telling story.

“The Final Hours,” which aired on Wednesday evening, May 29, continues an exploration of the city’s archaeological dig through the lens of the eruption and the last hours of the people living in and around Pompeii. In it, we return to the newly discovered commercial bakery and laundry, or “fullery,” at the center of the new dig.

Pompeii shrine offering excavation
The excavation of a shrine, where archaeologists discovered remains of animal and vegetable matter together for the first time in Pompeii, including dates, nuts, and bones that were likely gathered as a desperate offering to the gods in the city’s final moments. (screenshot Hyperallergic)

In addition to excavating grand frescoed rooms behind the bakery, Italian archaeologists discovered vivid charcoal graffiti depicting fighting gladiators under the building’s stairs. As Pompeii experts such as Rebecca Benefiel have previously explained, ancient graffiti was ubiquitous in towns across the Mediterranean. Pompeii was covered in graffiti that was painted (known as dipinti), etched, or outlined in charcoal by people of all ages. Just look at the children’s charcoal hand outline announced at the site earlier this week. Today, graffiti is often derided as a taboo art form and even criminalized. However, in the ancient world, graffiti was a part of the everyday, written landscape with which Pompeiians regularly interacted. Election notices covered walls, children and adults scribbled messages or riffed on lines of poetry by Virgil, and spectators drew the gladiatorial matches they had seen in the amphitheater.

Elsewhere in the home, an unusual finding sheds light on the role of religion in the last moments of the Pompeiians. Archaeobotanist Chiara Comegna and archaeozoologist Chiara Corbino discuss the curious mix of pine cone kernels, figs, dates, olive stones, and animal bones on a shrine. This act, they explain, was likely an offering to the gods by those still stuck in the house, a final plea for safety in the midst of a terrifying environmental event.

The last moments of Pompeii are recounted toward the end of the episode, taking viewers deeper into the emotions of those few thousand or so still trapped in the city and surrounding ones like Herculaneum. Following three pyroclastic flows, a fourth enveloped Pompeii in the form of a scorching, noxious avalanche, killing all who had survived the first wave. The bodies within then degraded and created empty cavities, later filled with plaster in the 19th century in order to get the impressions of those under the ash. These plaster casts of the so-called “fugitives” fleeing Pompeii were made after the development of the technique from 1863 onward, capturing the visceral expressions and gestures of those who perished in the eruption. 

These heartbreaking, concluding details of Pompeii’s last minutes are discussed in detail by volcanologist Christopher Jackson and archaeologist Miko Flohr. Images of the plaster casts are, as always, a visceral reminder of the lives taken that day. And while the discovery of the stunning frescoes “emerging from the pumice” may dazzle us, the real reason to tune into the last episode of Pompeii: The New Dig is not for the art or the gladiators. It is to appreciate how archaeologists and scientists continue to work methodically, and often with little recognition in return, to reconstruct the experiences of the thousands of Pompeiians who lived, escaped, or died in the doomed city.

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