The partially mutilated remains of a man buried by the AD79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius at Herculaneum, the ancient Roman town close to Pompeii, have been discovered in what Italy’s culture minister described as a “sensational” find.
Archaeologists said the man, believed to have been aged between 40 and 45, was killed just steps away from the sea as he tried to flee the eruption.
His skeleton was found on what would have been the ancient town’s beach with the head pointing back in the direction of the sea, and surrounded by carbonised wood, including a roof beam, that might have crushed his skull, the Italian news agency, Ansa, reported.
“The last moments here were instantaneous, but terrible,” Francesco Sirano, the director of Herculaneum archaeological park, told Ansa.
“It was 1am when the pyroclastic surge produced by the volcano reached the town for the first time with a temperature of 300-400 degrees, or even, according to some studies, 500-700 degrees. A white-hot cloud that raced towards the sea at a speed of 100km [60 miles] per hour, which was so dense that it had no oxygen in it.”
The man’s bones were a bright red colour, which Sirano said was “the mark of the stains left by the victim’s blood”.
The discovery was made during the first archaeological dig at Herculaneum, a much smaller and less well-known site than neighbouring Pompeii, in almost three decades.
Excavations in the 1980s and 90s unearthed the skeletons of more than 300 victims piled in boat sheds, where they are believed to have been sheltering while they waited to be rescued by sea.
Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister, said: “The sensational discovery of the remains of a fugitive at the archaeological site of Herculaneum is great news, first of all because the find is due to the resumption in this place, after almost 30 years, of scientific excavations conducted by the ministry’s technical staff.”
Herculaneum was buried under about 15 metres (50ft) of volcanic ash until it was rediscovered during the digging of a well in the early 18th century.