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Dr. Kristina Killgrove @DrKillgrove
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Short thread on the importance of that new Pompeii graffiti and eruption date, to follow up on this very general story I posted earlier:…

The date of Vesuvius's exact eruption has been debated for quite some time. I learned about the possible October date as an undergrad, for example. The later date makes sense b/c of the clothes worn and, more importantly, the fruit in season.

Fruit may seem odd as an important item, considering how much wonderful wall painting, architecture, pottery, and more survives from Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, Stabiae, and more. But it gives us a specific time in the year that the destruction occurred.

Based on the pomegranates, walnuts, and wine made from harvested grapes, many scholars have long believed the Oct 24 date over the Aug 24 date. Why the wrong date, then?

Pliny the Younger is the first good source on the eruption, writing 25 years after it happened in a letter to the Roman historian Tacitus. He recalled what he saw and heard, and what happened to his uncle, Pliny the Elder. It's possible the younger Pliny got the month wrong.

It's also possible that a copyist somewhere along the way mistook Oct for Aug or, also possible, the months were confused since October originally = the 8th month.

The date debate hasn't been of much consequence in Roman archaeology -- two months is a very short time when you're talking about stuff that's 2,000 years old. And Pompeii is a complex site with crazy taphonomy over the centuries. Why does a specific date matter, then?

I'm a bioarchaeologist, which means I study Roman skeletons. And the skeletons from Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Oplontis are unlike other Roman skeletons because these are people who all died more or less at once and more or less when they were healthy, not from cemeteries.

So in studying these skeletons, I can see the actual distribution of demographics in the population -- the age-at-death distribution looks very *unlike* the cemetery populations I've studied in Rome. It looks like a living population caught at a bad time.

Even more important than demography, though, is disease ecology. Roman historians and demographers in particular have debated what diseases were circulating in the Roman Empire. Some of this is based on skeletons, some on history, some on tombstones and month of death.

Many diseases peak and wane over the course of the year -- take our current flu season, for example -- so a difference of two months, between late summer and early autumn -- could be significant to understanding the disease load in 79 AD.

What used to be seen as boring differences in plants, clothing, and animals and insects, in the hands of a bioarchaeologist, zooarchaeologist, or archaeo-parasitologist, mean a better understanding of diet, temperature, and disease ecology.

Two months may seem very short in the grand scheme of things, but when we’re looking microscopically at organic remains (human, animal, plant), a change of season matters quite a bit.

So since I'm working on a study of diseases and disease ecology at Oplontis using DNA from the Romans who died in that catastrophic earthquake, I am very interested in the new graffito and potential confirmation of the October date.

I hope other Roman archaeologists are just as interested as I am, not because it'll rewrite history (as my headline for a public audience notes) but because precision means I can extract a whole new world of information about the Romans from their skeletons.

For more on my #bioarchaeology work on the skeletons from Oplontis, check out my research project site, which includes spiffy 3D models of skulls and skeletons.

Er, volcanic eruption, not earthquake. (There was a catastrophic earthquake in 62 that damaged many of these sites, and there's a suggestion it also affected the birthrate, with a dip in the # of teenagers found in 79 AD.)
Post script: Head of Pompeii, Prof Massimo Osanna, has posted on Instagram the full graffito.

Translated, it's: On October 17, he over-indulged in food.
Hat tip to @rogueclassicist for the above!
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