Archeologists are piecing together the dramatic last moments of two women and three children whose skeletons have been discovered at Pompeii.
Caught up in the terrifying eruption of Mt Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago, they sought shelter in the inner room of a villa, wedging a piece of furniture – either a bed or a divan – against the door.
But their attempts at self-preservation were sadly in vain and all five died as the building was engulfed in volcanic ash and collapsed.
The skeletons were discovered in the same villa where archeologists last week found a charcoal inscription that suggested that the eruption of Vesuvius happened in October AD 79, not August of that year, as previously thought.
The women and children would have barricaded themselves inside the house because by then there was no chance of fleeing Pompeii – the ash had been falling for 18 hours, homes were covered in debris and streets were blocked with ash and pumice, said Massimo Osanna, the director of Pompeii.
“The place where they took shelter must have seemed safe,” Prof Osanna said.
Instead, their lives were soon after snuffed out by the devastating impact of the volcano’s eruption.
“They were crushed by the roof when it collapsed, or burned by the pyroclastic cloud, or perhaps a combination of both those things,” he said.
Not far from the skeletons, archeologists made another intriguing discovery – a 17th century coin, suggesting that the villa was partially explored by tomb-raiders decades before official excavations began in 1748.
The effect of tunneling and digging by early tomb raiders was “devastating”, Prof Osanna said.
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“The objective was to find any objects of value, without paying any regard at all for human remains, which they disturbed.”
Pompeii is undergoing a new phase of excavations, the most intensive since the 1950s, with extraordinary finds coming to light almost every month.
The EU-funded project has unearthed villas decorated with frescoes and mosaics depicting Roman gods and goddesses and animals such as crocodiles, snakes, deer and peacocks.
Despite more than 250 years of intermittent excavations, a third of Pompeii still remains to be explored.
The discovery of the charcoal inscription last week suggested that Mt Vesuvius did not erupt on August 24, AD 79, but two months later.
The inscription was found along with other bits of writing, much of it ribald. “On the walls of the atrium and corridor of the villa there is a notable quantity of graffiti, which is still being studied, with phrases that are in some cases of an obscene character," archeologists said in a statement.