Skull of Pliny the Elder, Lost to Vesuvius in 79 AD, Possibly Found

Pliny the Elder. Image by Wikipedia.

Archaeologists often don’t find out who a given skeleton belongs to. Most people don’t die with convenient stone or metal name tags that can survive a few thousand years. Unless the grave you find is specifically labeled, we have to infer the roles individuals played in society from indirect information. It’s even harder to identify specific individuals when people die in an unexpected disaster.

In this case, however, researchers may have identified a specific nobleman who lived and died in the first century of the Roman Empire. It’s possible that we’ve positively identified the skull of Pliny the Elder.

Historical Context

When Mount Vesuvius blew in AD 79, it buried the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii beneath meters of pyroclastic debris. Over the centuries, historians have made incredible discoveries at both sites. The suddenness of the disaster and the thoroughness with which both towns were covered preserved a tremendous amount of information about the Roman era, including a priceless collection of charred scrolls that vastly expanded our knowledge of ancient writers and their works.

Our knowledge of the eruption itself is derived from a single surviving eyewitness account. In approximately AD 104, Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to the Roman senator and historian Tacitus in which he described the events of the eruption. Pliny dates the eruption as 24 August, though some archaeologists have argued for an October date based on the presence of fresh olives in the city. Here’s an excerpt from his account:

At that time, my uncle [Pliny the Elder] was in command of the fleet. About one in the afternoon, my mother pointed out a cloud with an odd size and appearance that had just formed… The cloud could best be described as more like an umbrella pine than any other tree, because it rose high up in a kind of trunk and then divided into branches. I imagine that this was because it was thrust up by the initial blast until its power weakened and it was left unsupported and spread out sideways under its own weight…

Like a true scholar, my uncle saw at once that it deserved closer study and ordered a boat to be prepared.

The voyage that Pliny the Elder intended to make in scientific curiosity quickly became an errand of mercy. As he was about to embark, Pliny received a letter from a friend and her husband who lived near the foot of Vesuvius, at Stabiae, begging for rescue. Pliny ordered his galleys to see to the evacuation of the shoreline and took a faster vessel directly towards his friend’s home. Pliny the Younger recounts that his uncle “steered bravely straight for the danger zone that everyone else was leaving in fear and haste.” When his helmsmen encountered flaming cinders and ash near Herculaneum, Pliny the Elder responded: “Fortune favors the brave, steer to where Pomponianus [his friend] is.”


Image by Wikipedia

Upon reaching Stabiae, Pliny found Pomponianus but not Rectina, the woman who had written him. The party found itself unable to flee by sea because the same winds that had brought Pliny to Stabiae prevented the cutter from sailing. The group took refuge in Pomponianus’ home for some hours, before the ash and pumice levels became so heavy as to compromise the structure.

Pliny, however, did not fare well in the open air. In speaking of events that night, Pliny the Younger notes that his uncle fell asleep at one point, “for his loud, heavy breathing was heard by those passing his door.” Once the group reached the sea, Pliny sat down to rest and called for cold water, but was unable to keep his feet, even with the assistance of two slaves. Pliny the Younger writes that his uncle: “suddenly collapsed and died, because, I imagine, he was suffocated when the dense fumes choked him. When light returned on the third day after the last day that he had seen, his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like a man asleep than dead.”

Pliny the Younger does not state what happened to his uncle’s body or whether it was specifically recovered for individual burial. It’s unlikely that his uncle was uniquely overcome by fumes, but a heart or asthma attack are both considered distinct possibilities for an older, heavyset man with breathing troubles operating near an active volcano.

Modern Discovery

More than a century ago, an engineer named Gennaro Matrone found a group of 70 skeletons near the historic shore of Stabiae. One of the skeletons bore multiple golden chains, bracelets, and a short sword decorated with ivory and seashells. I can’t find a picture of the actual sword Matrone recovered, but I’ve dropped a standard Roman gladius below, just to give you an idea what the basic form might have been:

The idea that an individual decorated with golden bracelets and carrying a sword with a specific ocean motif might also be a highly decorated fleet commander was dismissed for lack of evidence. Matrone sold most of the bones to various private collectors, then donated the skull and jawbone to Rome’s Museum of the History of the Art of Medicine.

A new analysis of the bones has turned up evidence backing the Pliny theory. First, the jawbone wasn’t related to the skull (a not-unusual mistake when excavating a mass crave of 70 people) but belonged to someone much younger. The skull, however, could be Pliny’s based on an analysis of DNA haplogroups and cranial sutures. The haplogroup analysis indicated the owner was typical of Italian populations in the Roman period, while the cranial sutures suggested the owner was 45, plus or minus 12 years (based on the analysis of the top sutures), while the sides of the skull were both typical of someone who was 56, plus or minus eight years.

This doesn’t prove the skull is Pliny’s, but it strengthens the case. While the Romans of this era typically cremated their dead more frequently than burying them, it’s entirely possible that there was very little wood left to burn. Burning 70 people would have required a great deal of wood. At a certain point, mass burial becomes simpler.

Other Fun Vesuvius Facts

Two other fun things to have emerged from Pompeii and Herculaneum in the last few years, just in case you missed them.

In 2018, researchers announced they’d found someone who died a death worthy of Wile E. Coyote.

Suuuuuuuuper genius. Image credit: Lightrocket via Getty Images

Researchers believe the remains of the man’s head are located beneath the enormous rock.

Second, an analysis of the hundred or so skeletons found in the boathouses of Herculaneum, where people unable to flee attempted to take refuge, has found evidence that the temperatures inside the boat house were so high, they boiled the blood out of people. Multiple individuals show evidence of skullcap fractures caused by the sudden and violent explosions of their contents. Now, a new analysis of remains found in a different part of Herculaneum has found one man whose brain didn’t explode — it actually turned to glass.

The moral of this story? Don’t live near potentially active volcanoes. But if you do live near potentially active volcanoes, try to die in a really interesting way so that scientists who study you can learn cool things from your demise.

And maybe wear dog tags. You’ll be doing the archaeologists of 10,000 AD a favor.

Feature image by Wolfgang Sauber/CC BY-SA 3.0

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