Citizens of Herculaneum in the dock buildings, 79 AD
In 1980–82 excavations initially turned up more than 55 skeletons on the ancient beach (which was just in front of the town walls) and in the first six so-called boat sheds. Because all of the excavations in the town had revealed only a few skeletons, it was long thought that nearly all of the inhabitants had managed to escape, but this surprising discovery led to a change of view. The last inhabitants waiting for rescue from the sea were apparently killed instantly by the intense heat of the pyroclastic flow, despite being sheltered from direct impact. Study of victims’ postures and the effects on their skeletons seemed to indicate that the first surge caused instant death as a result of fulminant shock due to a temperature of about 500 °C (930 °F). The intense heat caused contraction of hands and feet and possibly fracture of bones and teeth.
After a period of mismanagement of the finds and deterioration of skeletons further excavations in the 1990s appeared to reveal a total of 296 skeletons huddled close together in 9 of the 12 stone vaults facing the sea and also on the beach, while the town was almost completely evacuated. The “Ring Lady” (see image), named for the rings on her fingers, was discovered in 1982.
Eventually 340 bodies were identified in this area. Analysis of the skeletons suggest it was mainly men who died on the beach, while women and children sheltered and died in the boat houses.
Research on the skeletons is continuing. Chemical analysis of the remains has led to greater insight into the health and nutrition of the Herculaneum population.
Casts of skeletons were also produced, to replace the original bones after taphonomic study, scientific documentation and excavation. In contrast to Pompeii, where casts resembling the body features of the victims were produced by filling the body imprints in the ash deposit with plaster, the shape of corpses at Herculaneum could not be preserved, due to the rapid vaporisation and replacement of the flesh of the victims by the hot ash (ca. 500 °C). A cast of the skeletons unearthed within chamber 10 is on display at the Museum of Anthropology in Naples.
Of exceptional interest is the recent analysis of one of the skeletons (no. 26) discovered in 1982 on the beach next to a naval boat (on display in the boat pavilion) which has identified it as that of a military officer (with an elaborate dagger and belt) perhaps involved in a mission to rescue residents.
New excavations starting in 2021 will attempt to expose the western side of the ancient beach where more skeletons may be found.