Archaeologists have found the skull of an ancient Roman who was killed while trying to flee Pompeii as it was engulfed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius 2,000 years ago.
The skull was found with the jaw agape, frozen in an expression of fear and horror.
“His mouth is open wide, in a very striking manner,” said Massimo Osanna, the director of the archaeological site, which lies south of Naples.
The rest of the man’s body was discovered last month beneath a large stone slab and it was originally thought he died from being decapitated as the rock was hurled through the air by the force of the volcanic blast.
With the discovery of his skull, however, experts now believe that the man died from being suffocated by the volcanic ash that rained down on the bustling Roman town in AD 79, rather than being squashed by the rock.
His skull was found close to the slab of rock, which still points into the air at a sharp angle, but it was intact.
That suggests that the man was not crushed or beheaded by the slab, which may have been a doorjamb or lintel.
“We believe he died from being suffocated by the dust and volcanic ash,” said Prof Osanna.
“His death was presumably not, therefore, due to the impact of the stone block, as initially assumed, but likely to asphyxia caused by the pyroclastic flow.”
Along with the man’s skull, archaeologists found his arms and the upper part of his thorax.
The Roman, who was in his thirties, is thought to have been trying to run away from the eruption of Vesuvius but was slowed down by an infection in his leg bone.
Shortly after the lower half of his skeleton was found, archaeologists discovered a “treasure trove” of silver and bronze coins that he had been carrying in a leather pouch, perhaps around his neck.
The pouch contained 22 coins which together were worth 80 sestertii,
enough to sustain a family of three for at least a fortnight.
The man may have been a merchant desperate to save a portion of his family’s wealth as he tried to flee the burning hot cloud of ash that descended on the city.
Some of the coins dated back to the 2nd century BC, while others were more recent and bore the likenesses of the emperors Augustus and Vespasian.
The skeleton was found in an area of new excavations, close to a newly-discovered alleyway of houses with balconies.
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