At approximately 12pm on 24th August 79AD, the volcano Vesuvius, near the Roman city of Pompeii, erupted, causing one of the most infamous natural disasters of all time.
Seventeen years before the eruption, in 62AD, a violent earthquake shook Pompeii, killing a large number of people and damaging buildings. The repair work was still in progress when Vesuvius struck.
Beginning with the plug of solid lava that had previously sealed the volcano being blown off by the build up of pressure from within, the explosion projected a 20km high column of pumice, grit, and silica-rich magma into the air. This pumice was joined by volcanic ash as it settled over a 70km radius to the south-east of the volcano. Pompeii was buried within a mere few hours.
As Vesuvius erupted, the catastrophe was compounded by earth tremors and tidal waves from the coast nearby, before finally ending in a heavy rainfall which washed rivers of mud towards the nearby town of Herculaneum. The town was covered 20 metres deep, and when the mud then solidified, it trapped and killed hundreds of people in the process.
Although you can still see casts of many of the fallen residents in the ruins of Pompeii, who died and were preserved where they stood by the pumice ash, it wasn’t actually the volcanic materials or collapsing buildings that killed the majority of Pompeii’s population, but the poisonous gases released from the pumice stones as they clouded the air.
Watching the events after escaping Pompeii by ship, and reaching the relative safety of nearby Stabiae, Pliny the Younger wrote a little to his friend Tacitus about the events he’d witnessed: “It was almost as if it were being pulled up from its foundations…”
Completely buried by ash and pumice, Pompeii and the surrounding area disappeared from view. It wasn’t until 1592, while a canal was being dug in an area known as collina della Civita, that some of the buildings’ ruins were rediscovered, and even then no investigations were made into what they were until 1748. Eventually archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli, working in the area in 1860, would begin to reveal the beauty of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and later still, many of the most famous buildings were found by Amedeo Maiur between 1924 and 1961.
Work continues on both Pompeii and Herculaneum to this day, continuing to teach us about the population of the ancient cities, and preserving the entire settlements until the day Vesuvius claims them again.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.