October 17, 2018 – Never-before seen ancient graffiti suggests the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which buried the Roman city of Pompeii in AD74, took place two months later than previously thought. The charcoal daub by a builder records “I had a great meal” and is dated mid-October, weeks after the town was supposedly smothered in ash.
It has taken nearly 2,000 years, but long-lost graffiti scrawled on a wall has helped to put the record straight about one of the world’s most devastating natural disasters.
Historians have long claimed that Mount Vesuvius erupted on August 24, AD79, covering Pompeii with burning ash. The graffiti found in a recently excavated house, however, is dated to mid-October, almost two months after the Roman city and many of its citizens were thought destroyed, backing suspicions that the eruption in fact occurred on October 24.
“This is an extraordinary find which finally allows us to date, with confidence, the eruption,” said Massimo Osanna, the director of the site.
The charcoal inscription, which references someone overindulging in food, is dated 16 days before the “calends” of November in the old Roman calendar style — or Oct. 17. While there’s no year to go along with the graffiti, archaeologists believe both the nature of the scrawl and the renovations in the home where it was discovered all line up with 79 A.D.
“The inscription appears in a room of the house which was undergoing refurbishment, while the rest of the rooms had already been completed; works must therefore have been ongoing at the time of the eruption,” the team wrote in a statement. “Furthermore, since it was done in fragile and evanescent charcoal, which could not have been able to last long, it is highly probable that it can be dated to the October of AD 79.”
They believe that one week later, on Oct. 24, Mount Vesuvius erupted — entombing the city in ash and mud and claiming the lives of an estimated 2,000 citizens.
In the intervening 1,939 years since Pompeii’s destruction, the only solid eyewitness evidence to have survived came from the Roman author Pliny the Younger. In a letter written to the historian Tacitus some 25 years after the event had happened, Pliny described the nightmarish scene he observed while standing on a bay opposite Pompeii. He wrote:
You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.
Pliny’s recollection that the eruption occurred on Aug. 24 was long held as historical canon for centuries. It wasn’t until archaeologists began meticulously removing the layers of ash and mud that had preserved Pompeii that they started to suspect otherwise. Hints pointing to a later date included carbonized remains of autumnal crops such as chestnuts, walnuts, pomegranates, and olives, as well the discovery of heating braziers indoors rather than in courtyards for summer functions.
Perhaps most telling of all, plaster casts of Roman citizens who perished in the pyroclastic blast that swept the city showed evidence of heavy wool clothing more appropriate for fall than late summer. The discovery of the graffiti only further bolsters the October suspicions.
“Today, with much humility, perhaps we will rewrite the history books because we date the eruption to the second half of October,” Italy’s Minister of Culture Alberto Bonisoli told reporters.
The new section of Pompeii currently undergoing excavation has given archaeologists’s plenty of surprises over the last several months. Called “Regio V,” the site has yielded magnificent frescoes, preserved remnants of pubs, shops, and former gardens, and even a the remains of a man seemingly crushed by a giant boulder.
Earlier this month, researchers found a 16-by-12-foot shrine room containing an altar, a garden, and a small pool. The Italian media dubbed it “the Enchanted Garden,” and based on the stunning artwork uncovered of serpents, peacocks, and other natural scenes, it’s easy to see why.
“Every house had a lararium of some kind,” Ingrid Rowland, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of “From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town,” told The New York Times. “But only the wealthiest people could have afforded a lararium inside a special chamber with a raised pool and sumptuous decorations.”
With nearly one-third of the city still buried under ash and mud, Pompeii will likely continue to amaze with new discoveries about Roman life for generations to come.