How a volcanic eruption nearly 2,000 years ago is aiding in research today
From an interview with Greg Reinhardt, chair of the Department of Anthropology, and Chris Schmidt, professor of Anthropology and director of the Anthropology graduate program, after their research trip to Italy in May.
Reinhardt: Chris and I applied for a Zerfas Travel Grant from the University to go to Chieti, Italy, so that he could mold teeth from jaws of people unearthed at Herculaneum; they’d died in the same event that wiped out Pompeii in AD 79. Beyond assisting Chris, my second goal was to concentrate on digital photography in anticipation this summer of writing the third edition of my book, Technical Photography, which I’ll use in my course of that name this fall.
Q: Describe the goal of your project.
Schmidt: The goal was to study what the Herculaneum people ate. It’s part of a National Science Foundation-funded global survey of ancient diets. The analysis is called dental microwear texture analysis and it uses a white light confocal profiler housed in the Anthropology Department that was purchased with an NSF grant in 2009. It is the largest human microwear project ever and so far includes around 900 people from about 70 sites from every continent. Notable samples come from Stonehenge, ancient Egypt, ice-age Italy, bronze-age Greece, Nepal, Mongolia, Peru, Mexico, and now Herculaneum. We have collaborators around the globe, and researchers come to UIndy to use our system because only a few anthropology programs have one. We’ve hosted students from Illinois and Mississippi as well as Harvard. In the fall we’ll start studying teeth from Canterbury Cathedral in England.
Reinhardt: We arrived in Chieti on May 20 and went to the university museum (Museo Universitario d’Annunzio) to start work. Chris and I cleaned the teeth, which he then molded. I helped by photographing jaws he’d molded as well as several crania and mandibles with intriguing patterns of burning and dental conditions. On Friday we took a train to Herculaneum to see in person what that small “vacation town” had been like at the time Mount Vesuvius erupted. People at Herculaneum were well preserved (mostly complete skeletons), unlike the dead at Pompeii, whose bodies, although skeletonized, had experienced different effects. What’s most striking about Herculaneum is its size: it’s a very small place, almost completely photographable with a wide-angle lens from any side or corner of the walkway overlooking the place. Many spots around the town had burned wood still in place, including two wooden racks of shelving full of large terra cotta amphorae, vessels with carrying handles. Pompeii’s wood was evidently vaporized; at the least, none was visible on our visit there. Later we went to the superlative archeological museum in Boscoreale to see a small villa that is rather intact, although it suffered the same fate as the entire region. Near the main doorway stands an eleven-foot-tall “tree,” the volcanic ash-cast of a real tree that was “frozen” during the blast at an angle bent to almost 90 degrees. Inside the museum we saw many examples of foods, artifacts, fresco fragments, and even a dog and pig, all of which had been extraordinarily preserved beneath feet upon feet of Vesuvian ash.
Reinhardt: We devoted all of Saturday to Pompeii, some 65 hectares of small city, though it was big for its day. Like in Herculaneum, many of Pompeii’s buildings are reconstructed and restored. I’d been here 15 years ago during my first Zerfas Grant-funded trip, but at that time I hadn’t seen nearly enough of the meandering streets that marked the city’s huge open piazza. Shops, large mosaic-paved and fresco-covered villas, column-studded temples, enormous dark-gray basalt street cobbles furrowed with deep cart ruts, and occasional brothels spread in every direction from the piazza. Toward the lower urban reaches, farthest from the nearby Gulf of Naples, are an open-air courtyard, small and steep arena, and a many-tiered amphitheater. For me, the ultimate location, at the alternate “corner” of the city, is the Villa dei Misteri. Here is one of the few places where wood (a door and window shutters) withstood the fiery destruction and remained in place. Its floors are all done in geometric mosaics—tiny piecework in black and white as well as larger colored shapes in marbles. Many walls survived stunningly intact, with floor-to-ceiling frescoes of plants and animals, many mingling with creatures, mythological deities, and beautifully painted, life-sized people gracing one particular room.
Reinhardt: Herculaneum is in a basin below the modern city of Ercolano, whose apartment buildings creep to the very walls of the ancient site. It was once really close to the sea, but that can’t even be seen because of all the ashfall now damming this town from the ocean, which must be a good quarter-mile away now. Pompeii, on the other hand, isn’t close to the Gulf, which I’d read is some two kilometers off, and it stretched across a hill-like ridge sweeping downward and away from Mount Vesuvius. You can see that looming mass pressing against the sky behind all three sites we visited. That now-dormant volcano is only a fraction of its former size, as its peak blew off in that horrific, fiery, smothering, days-long eruption nearly two millennia ago. If you stare at Vesuvius’s present outline, you can kind of retrace its outer edges to realize how enormous the original mountain’s cone really was. Today’s profile looks like two higher outer peaks with a shorter pair between them.