CT scanners are being used on the plaster casts of the Mount Vesuvius victims from Pompeii. Preliminary results show that, in general, they had great teeth and were in remarkably good health before the volcanic eruption. This new discovery goes against the commonly held belief that Romans were often hedonists that enjoyed consuming in excess whenever possible.
Especially surprising for the scientists is that the ancient Pompeiians had great dental records, despite the poor dental care available in 79 AD. “They ate better than we did and have really good teeth.” Elisa Vanacore, a dental expert, said in a press release. The Pompeiians ate a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in sugars. Apart from a healthy diet, “The initial results also show the high levels of fluorine that are present in the air and water here, near the volcano,” Vanacore continued. Fluorine may have been a beneficial or a detrimental factor to the dental and bone health of the Pompeiians depending on the quantity they consumed.
30 of the 86 Pompeiian plaster casts have passed through the scanning process so far. The results are providing more details on the lives of the individuals found from the site. “It will reveal much about the victims: their age, sex, what they ate, what diseases they had and what class of society they belonged to. This will be a great step forward in our knowledge of antiquity.” Massimo Osanna, the archaeological superintendent of Pompeii, said.
For Stefania Giudice, a conservator from Naples national archaeological Museum, the Pompeiians are also taking on a more human importance as they continue to be studied: ‘It can be very moving handling these remains. Even though it happened 2,000 years ago, it could be a boy, a mother or a family. It’s human archaeology, not just archaeology.’ These connections enhance the significance of the study for those involved as well.
The team is a multidisciplinary one that is composed of archaeologists, computer engineers, radiologists, and orthodontists. In conjunction with the CT scanners, they have also used a contrast dye that mimics the appearance of muscles and skin to accentuate the features of the victims. Together, the technologies are providing the images of the remains in vivid details.
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When the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli first thought of plaster casting the remains in 1866, his goals were mostly to move and preserve the fragile bodies. Unfortunately, this delayed the process of analyzing the organic matter, until now.
Tomography is the process of creating a 2D image or ‘slice’ of a 3D object that allows doctors to search in detail for problems in their patients. It is in common use in hospitals and is becoming more familiar in archaeology as well.
In this study the scientists are using a 16-layer CAT technology machine. “One of the problems we encountered was the density of chalk used for the cast technique. It is a density similar to bones, that’s why we had to use the 16-layer CAT technology.” Massimo Osanna explained.
Another difficulty the team has had to contend with regarding the CT scanners is that they only allow individuals up to a 70 cm (27.6 inches) diameter to enter the machine. Thus the more robust Pompeiians are only providing scans of their heads and upper chests. These scans also show the team that many of the victims have severe cranial injuries, undoubtedly due to falling rubble during the eruption of Vesuvius.
The scientists have now begun scanning on animals to accompany their results from the human remains.