Skip to main content
News_

Skeletal analysis reveals Pompeii myths are getting long in the tooth

18 August 2016
Experts partner with Philips to analyse human remains

A team led by Dr Estelle Lazer of the University of Sydney has used portable digital x-rays to yield readable images of bones embedded in thick plaster.

Dr Estelle Lazer holds a 3D print of a Pompeian cast. Image: Gianni Quaranta

Dr Estelle Lazer holds a 3D print of a Pompeian cast. Image: Gianni Quaranta

Ongoing analysis of 86 restored casts in Pompeii is disproving enduring myths about the lives – and deaths – of the victims of the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

A team led by Dr Estelle Lazer of the University of Sydney has used portable digital x-ray machines to yield readable images of bones embedded in thick plaster, and digital CT scanners, to provide the most complete picture yet of delicate skeletal remains.

As part of the Great Pompeii Project funded by the European Union and Italian government, Dr Lazer and colleagues secured the loan of advanced CT scanners through a partnership with Philips. The discoveries enabled by this technology challenge longstanding claims about the Pompeians.

For one, they did not have ‘perfect teeth’, as has been widely reported in the past year.

“We have found evidence of tooth decay, gum disease with associated bone loss and the build-up of calcified plaque,” says Dr Lazer.  

The researchers also found evidence of abscesses and signs that Pompeians’ teeth were worn from eating bread made from stone ground flour — stone fragments would fall into the flour.

Some earlier casts were almost devoid of bones but were reinforced with metal rods and brackets.
A Pompeian cast created in 1875.

A Pompeian cast created in 1875. 

Scans turn old claims to ash

Be it stories of ‘a begger’ whose fine Roman sandal was explained away as a gift from a philanthropist or claims a cast with a swollen abdomen was a sign of pregnancy —  Lazer says Pompeii’s human remains have long been used as props for storytelling, not scientific enquiry.

“Interpretations have been based on superficial inspection and circumstantial evidence,” she says.

Early archaeologists cut corners

In a free public talk for Sydney Ideas at the University of Sydney on 25 August, Lazer will explain how her team’s analyses have detailed early archaeological malpractice. 

“The techniques used for producing the casts in the 19th and early 20th centuries were not well documented and we have found that a number of the earlier casts were almost devoid of skeletal material but were reinforced with metal rods and brackets.

“This was totally unexpected and has provided us with new information about how the casts were actually made.” 

Luke O'Neill

Media and PR Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)

Facts_

86

The number of restored casts first subjected to scientific analysis in 2015

Related articles