Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Pliny the Elder's skull?

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: Pompeii Hero Pliny the Elder May Have Been Found 2,000 Years Later. Pliny the Elder sailed into danger when Vesuvius erupted, and never returned, but a body found a century ago 'covered in jewelry like a cabaret ballerina' may really have been his (Ariel David, Haaretz).
Italian scientists are a few thousand euros and a test tube away from conclusively identifying the body of Pliny the Elder, the Roman polymath, writer and military leader who launched a naval rescue operation to save the people of Pompeii from the deadly eruption of Mt. Vesuvius 2,000 years ago.

If successful, the effort would mark the first positive identification of the remains of a high-ranking figure from ancient Rome, highlighting the work of a man who lost his life while leading history's first large-scale rescue operation, and who also wrote one of the world's earliest encyclopedias.

This sounds crazy, but it could just work. The body was found at the right place and the man died during the eruption of Vesuvius. The gold jewelry he was wearing is consistent with Pliny's status. And the new technology could identify down where he grew up.

This old PaleoJudaica post summarizes the story of Pliny's last hours, based on the account written by his nephew, Pliny the Younger. I have a link there to the letter itself. And having re-read it, I see a few problems. The nephew says of his uncle:
When daylight came again 2 days after he died, his body was found untouched, unharmed, in the clothing that he had had on. He looked more asleep than dead.
Pliny's body was not buried in ash. It was found untouched. But it sounds as though the mystery body was buried in ash:
In the first years of the 20th century, amid a flurry of digs to uncover Pompeii and other sites preserved by the layers of volcanic ash that covered them, an engineer called Gennaro Matrone uncovered some 70 skeletons near the coast at Stabiae. One of the bodies carried a golden triple necklace chain, golden bracelets and a short sword decorated with ivory and seashells.
I would like to know more about the recovery of these skeletons. Presumably Pliny's body was buried after it was found. Possibly this would have been in a mass grave. There were many dead and they would have to have been interred rapidly to prevent the spread of disease. But I would think that the people who knew him would have kept his jewelry and sword to give back to his family.

So it doesn't initially sound very likely that the mystery body is Pliny's.

This is all speculation, and I don't want to draw any conclusions on the basis of a popular article in a newspaper. But those are some apparent inconsistencies that need to be addressed.

On another note, if you read to the end of the article, you'll see that the guy who said "Fortune favors the bold" got himself killed shortly afterward. That's the bad news. The good news is that his rescue expedition may have saved a couple thousand people who would have died if he had turned back. Do your own cost-benefit analysis, but it's worth remembering the context when you quote that saying.

UPDATE: Bad link now fixed! Sorry about that.

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