New technology helps Pompeii rise from the ashes

Dr Estelle Lazer has spent the last three decades getting to know Pompeii’s dead. Now, new technology promises to reveal even more about the ancient population she has tirelessly worked to bring to life. Lorenza Bacino meets her

As a fascinating glimpse into ancient Roman history, Pompeii is pretty hard to beat. It draws millions of visitors every year to its villas and temples, eerily frozen in time ever since Mount Vesuvius’ deadly eruption in 79 AD.

One woman who has visited more than most is forensic archaeologist Dr Estelle Lazer. She knows the vast historical site like her own back garden. Her unmatched passion for the place has borne an understated yet fierce loyalty to those who lived and died there. Having devoted the last three decades to examining Pompeii’s skeletal remains, she wants the bones to finally tell the people’s stories.

The bones have until now been trapped within thick plaster casts surrounding each body, devised by Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli in the late 19th century.

“Bones had no value when excavations began in 1748,” Lazer explains. “Archaeology as a science didn’t exist and the Spanish Bourbon rulers were more interested in the bronzes and sculptures for their palaces. But at least they didn’t throw them away!”

The original casts were fragile and needed to be restored, but with the help of new medical CT scanning technology (which uses x-rays and a computer to create detailed images), their preserved contents can finally be revealed. In combination with specialist software, the scanners are being used to create 3D reconstructions of the bodies, giving Lazer and her team access to new information about Pompeii’s residents.

Early results have shown that this group of Romans were relatively healthy, though Lazer says reports of unexpectedly good dental health were exaggerated. Surprisingly, it’s thought the community had a similar life expectancy to western populations of today, based on signs of age-related disorders.

We are the sum total of all the people who have come before us, and we haven’t really changed in the past 2,000 years

For Lazer, the honorary consultant to the archaeological preservation of the ancient site, understanding the lost inhabitants of Pompeii means understanding ourselves: “We are the sum total of all the people who have come before us, and we haven’t really changed in the past 2,000 years.”

Overall, the long-awaited process of discovery has not been what researchers expected. “It’s more complicated than we imagined,” says Lazer. At the time of writing, the team had only scanned about 15 of the casts out of a possible 86, but they were surprised to find that some bones had been removed and replaced by metal bars and brackets when the original casts were made. “Ultimately there’s a bit more art than science in some of the casts, so we need to rethink how we interpret them,” she says.

Despite this, Lazer’s excitement about what they might discover is palpable: “We are looking at a whole slice of the living population and this is very unusual – in archaeology we normally look at single samples of the dead. Anything we find is so important, as we really knew nothing about the casts until now. And the best is yet to come, as we think some of the later casts contain more bones.”

For Lazer, and all of us, more bones means more accurate information about the hidden secrets of the ancient world.


Photo: Estelle Lazer