Not a soldier, but a marine engineer: how the one who died in Herculaneum changed his rank and profession
Archeology is not only about excavation. After working in the field, scientists sit down for interpretation: an assessment of the entire set of finds, including the remains of architecture, engineering structures, burials, in order to find a place for the discoveries in the context of what is already known. Often, museum workers also return to long-known objects in storerooms or exhibitions in order to re-examine them. So, recently in the State Historical Museum in Moscow, a sacrificial knife and a spearhead from the Viking Age from the Black Grave mound, found in the middle of the 20th century, were made into the so-called “barbarian scepters”. And the re-examined mummy of a man, kept in the National Museum in Warsaw since 1826, turned out to be the mummy of a pregnant woman. Those who study antiquity are not lagging behind their colleagues: the other day, the director of the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum, Francesco Sirano, spoke about a new interpretation of the find, made back in the 1980s.
In the 1980s, Herculaneum archaeologists began exploring the ancient city’s coastline. 12 unusual arched rooms were opened right in the retaining wall of the forum. They were christened “boathouses” or “boat sheds”, although there are no traces of boats or any property in them.
In the premises, scientists found the remains of more than 300 people – and the opinion that only a few died during the eruption of Vesuvius in Herculaneum had to be left in the past. In addition to large groups in the boathouses, several dozen bodies were found on the coast of the bay.
It was hypothesized that these people came ashore in expectation of help from the sea, and under the thick arches of the sheds, they took refuge from volcanic ash and lapilli. But from the deadly pyroclastic flows – a hot mixture of gas, ash and fragments of volcanic rocks – such a shelter no longer saved them. According to modern reconstructions, the first such stream reached Herculaneum on the very first day of the disaster.
The remains of those killed on the Herculanean coast have repeatedly become objects of research. Scientists have systematized the parameters of skeletons, traces of diseases and injuries, data from isotope analyzes, reconstructed the diet and even possible biographies. Recent studies have dealt with changes in human tissues and bones at the time of the passage of the pyroclastic flow: thanks to them, we know that the victims of the volcano literally boiled blood, and the brain of one of them turned the heat into glass.
The remains, which received nicknames and their own stories in addition to inventory numbers, were especially popular with the media and visitors. For example, skeleton number 10 is a girl with a baby in her arms. Since her bones indicate poor nutrition and stress with constant up and down movement, her legend took shape quite quickly: a slave nanny for a baby. Or skeleton number 65 – a middle-aged woman with good teeth and bones, possibly giving birth to two or three children. What is not the mother of a wealthy family, a venerable Roman matron?
Many Herculans, leaving home, took valuable things with them. For example, one of the women, whose skeleton was named the Lady with Rings, to save herself, put on gold rings with gems on her fingers, and gold bracelets on her hands. All decorations were expensive and possibly custom made.
Someone took money with them, someone – a pendant-amulet, and someone did not have time to put on the jewelry and just put the box with them in their pocket. All these values have already gone to archaeologists and can serve as supports both for the creation of romantic legends for the deceased, and for elucidating their identities with the help of science.
One of the victims on the seashore was a man with a sword, a bag and money. In the last century, this man was considered an ordinary legionnaire, and the name was attached to the skeleton at number 26 – the Soldier of Herculaneum. Now archaeologists have specified his “biography” by re-evaluating the finds near the body of the Soldier from Herculaneum.
Bone studies showed that this was a healthy and physically strong person 40-45 years old. On a leather belt, decorated with gold and silver, he had a sword with an ivory hilt and a legionnaire’s dagger – a pugio. The Soldier had a decent amount of money with him – two gold and 12 silver coins, as well as a bag with a set of carpentry tools.
There is no doubt that this man was a military man. Money, an expensive belt and weapons, according to experts, together indicate that the Soldier was not an ordinary soldier, but an officer. Francesco Sirano, in a conversation with reporters, mentioned another officer who died during the same eruption – his skeleton, also with an expensive sword and gold jewelry, was found on the coast near Pompeii in 1900. But there is no information in historical sources that military garrisons were located in Herculaneum or the district (and indeed on the Neapolitan coast).
But a few hours’ journey, in Misena, there was a fleet, the prefect of which was Pliny the Elder. Perhaps the Soldier from Herculaneum was an officer in the Mizen fleet who was sent to Herculaneum to organize the evacuation of the inhabitants by sea. That is why three hundred townspeople (out of an estimated population of 5-7 thousand) gathered in the boathouses, and the Soldier himself, among the few, mostly men, died on the shore. And the carpentry tools in the bag suggest he was a faber navalis, a naval engineer specializing in carpentry.
Alas, there is no other confirmation of this hypothesis yet. But if this is true, then the officer of the Mizen fleet could do nothing to help the inhabitants of Herculaneum, because, like them, he became a victim of the pyroclastic flow.