When exactly did Vesuvius erupt?

ROME – Traditionally, it has been claimed that the ancient Pompeians were tragically cut off on August 24, 79 AD, when Vesuvius unleashed its fury and suffocated Pompeii and other cities along its perimeter with volcanic debris.

A study by Italian authors published on Thursday gives weight to theories that move the date of the outbreak by two months, to the end of October or even the beginning of November. It cites – among other things evidence – the discovery during a recent excavation of a culinary inscription that was scribbled on a wall on October 17, 79 AD.

“The inscription is certainly dated after August 24,” the date used by generations of scholars, based on a report by the Roman writer Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption, said Giovanni P. Riccardi, an associate researcher at the Vesuvius Observatory of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, and one of the authors of the study. The later dating, he added, confirmed other evidence that has emerged over the years challenging the August dating.

Since 1748, when the first excavations began, the ancient city of Pompeii has captured the popular imagination as a testament to the arbitrariness of nature and the fragility of mankind.

In their introduction to the study, the researchers note that nearly 2,000 years after the eruption, Pompeii has enticed inspired movies and TV series; art, including Andy Warhol’s pop version of “Vesuvius”; and music, such as the 2013 hit “Pompeii” by British rock band Bastille.

Over the years, excavations in the buried city have provided insight into the lives of the ancient Romans, and new technology has provided even more detailed clues about their lives, including culinary habits.

On-site research, said Sandro de Vita, a co-author working at the Vesuvius Observatory, has also offered further hints of a later dating, from the discovery of typical autumn fruits – such as walnuts, chestnuts and pomegranates – to wine already sealed in dolia- or terracotta containers, suggesting that the grape harvest was over.

Excavations at the site also showed that wood stoves had been in use at the time of the eruption, and some of the victims were wearing heavy clothing that was still visible in plaster casts. “It all gives a different interpretation than what Pliny wrote,” he said.

Sir. Riccardi noted that there are no original copies of Pliny’s letter and that it only survives through copies made in the Middle Ages, meaning that there are slightly different versions, with different dates, of the same text.

The August 24 date comes from a copy of Pliny’s letter in the Florence-based Medicea Laurenziana Library, the oldest known copy. “Just because it’s older, oddly enough, is considered more reliable. But this is certainly not the way to deal with a historical fact,” Mr. Riccardi said.

Biagio Giaccio, another co-author of the Italian National Research Council, said some historians believe that the monks who wrote the Florence version, by copying the text, wanted to link the eruption to an ancient Roman festival known as mundus, which was celebrated in August. 24.

The Romans believed that on that day, a circular crater leading to the underworld was opened, allowing souls to emerge.

But the coal inscription sparked a debate when in 2018 it was found on one wall in the so-called House with the Garden, which opened to the public last year.

It was probably written by a worker who was restoring the villa at the time of the eruption and reads: “XVI K nov i[d] ulsit for masumis hungry[ioni]”, Which the authors of the study have translated to:” The sixteenth day before the November calendar, he indulged in food in an immeasurable way. ” The date corresponds to 17 October.

“The idea that the disaster happened in the fall is old news, but if they could link it to further scientific questions about the eruption, it could be interesting,” Cambridge Classics professor Mary Beard said in an email.

Further questions about what Vesuvius could tell us drove the study, said Mario A. Di Vito, another co-author, noting that the dating issue was just one of many discussed in the article, published in Earth-Science Reviews.

“We wanted to take stock of all the available knowledge ‘about Vesuvius’ and then raise the open questions that still need to be addressed with further research,” he said. For example, he said, more needs to be known about the seismic activity that took place during the earthquake, as well as “secondary phenomena” such as waste streams in nearby cities such as Amalfi “which had a huge impact.”

An interdisciplinary team analyzed the eruption “hour by hour” and tracked the effects both near and far, he said, noting that the study was part of a 2021 project led by the National Institute of Geophysics, which drew on about four decades of research.

And it is by no means over.

“The dating issue is sensational,” he said. But the article means to show “that there are certainly many problems still open that need to be solved.”

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