Archaeology and Human Remains from Herculaneum

Panorama of the excavation at Herculaneum.

Human remains are relatively recent archaeological discoveries at Herculaneum. They provide important archaeological information about lives and deaths.

The people of Herculaneum were once believed to have escaped the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79. Discoveries in the early 1980s revealed this was not the case when archaeologists began to uncover bodies in the area of the town’s beach.

The human remains of Herculaneum survive in a different way to those of Pompeii. They retain dramatic clues to how the victims of Vesuvius perished in this seaside Roman town. They also provide valuable information about the quality of life in Herculaneum.

The Eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79

The eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Herculaneum and nearby Pompeii began at 1pm on the 24th August AD 79. The town was shaken by tremors but the people of Herculaneum were initially spectators as the wind kept the fallout from the eruption away from the town.

By late afternoon, the earth tremors were becoming more violent. Although the ash cloud was still drifting away from the town, the column of material erupting from Vesuvius had formed a mushroom shaped mass of debris which hovered over the volcano and Herculaneum itself. It was believed this was the point the people of Herculaneum began to evacuate.

Although it was spared the full effects of the eruption longer than Pompeii, Herculaneum’s end came sooner. In the early hours of the 25th August, the first pyroclastic surges began. The cone of Vesuvius collapsed and the ash cloud increased in volume. It became too dense for the air to support and the column of glowing ash, rocks and gases collapsed.

A fiery cloud of debris, of around 815 degrees Celsius, 1500 degrees Fahrenheit sped towards Herculaneum. Within 3-4 minutes of the cloud hitting the town, all remaining life was annihilated.

The Bodies by the Suburban Baths

When excavations of Herculaneum began, very few human remains were found. It was initially assumed that the inhabitants had escaped either by sea or to Naples overland. In the early 1980’s, this theory was revised.

In 1981, excavations began around the suburban baths which were close to the harbour and former sea front of Herculaneum. Two bodies were found close to the town’s harbour gateways. This was followed by the discovery of human remains on the beach itself.

Further excavations in the summer of 1982, unearthed a capsized boat in the harbour area, with the remains of two men nearby, one a Roman solider.

It was becoming clear that escaping by sea had not been a simple matter. But later that year the greatest discovery was made. A series of rooms or fornici in the retaining wall of the suburban baths were excavated. They had been used as warehouses or boat stores for the harbour. It also appears that they were the last refuge for many of the people of Herculaneum.

As of 2008, 296 skeletons have been found in this area, with 59 from the beach itself. The numbers suggest that the people of Herculaneum did not easily escape after all.

Their end would have been instantaneous, occurring at the time of the pyroclastic surge that doomed Herculaneum. Those exposed on the beach would have died from thermal shock. Their skin and soft tissues would have been vaporised- red staining in surviving skulls shows that their brains melted from the heat wave.

For those in the fornici, the heat was so great that bones snapped and teeth shattered. But their remains survived in situ and are useful information about life in the roman town.

Osteoarchaeology and Life in Herculaneum

Human remains from Herculaneum are different to those of Pompeii because of conditions after the eruption. The ash and water that preserved the many of the inhabitants of the larger port town in casts did not preserve full skeletons, making detailed analysis of bones by osteoarchaeologists difficult.

At Herculaneum, there are no casts but many more skeletons remain intact in situ. This makes them perfect to use to build up a picture of the diet and health of the inhabitants of the town.

Strontium levels in the bones indicate that most of the population had a varied diet which was predominantly composed of vegetables and seafood.

The fact that the inhabitants were well nourished is confirmed by their height which compares favourably with modern inhabitants of Campania. Estelle Lazer quotes the findings of S C Bisel and L Carpasso which suggests that the average height of women was between 151.7cm and 155.2 cm and that of men between 163.8cm-169.1cm. This suggests that the population was well nourished during the crucial growth fazes of their childhood.

Analysis of the skeletons is far from over and it is not possible to establish the ethnic makeup of Herculaneum because of the damage to the DNA of the skeletons. But no doubt the bones of Herculaneum will yield more information about Roman life in the years to come.


  1. Lazer, E ‘’Victims of the Cataclysm’’ in JJ Dobbins and P W Foss (Ed) 2008 The World of Pompeii. Routledge: London and New York.
  2. M E A Pirozzi. Herculaneum: The Excavations, Local History and Surroundings. Soprintendenza Archeologia di Pompei. Electa. Napoli
  3. Wilkinson, P 2003. Pompeii The Last Day. BBC books: London