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2,000-year-old skeleton identified as senior Roman soldier on Vesuvius rescue mission

"We used to believe that DNA testing wouldn’t work on skeletons this old. We now know it’s not true," said the expert behind the project.
Image: The skeleton was discovered in Herculaneum back in the 1980's
The skeleton of the senior Roman solider as it was discovered in Herculaneum in the 1980s.Parco Archeologico di Ercolano

ROME — A 2,000-year-old skeleton belonged to a senior Roman soldier who was likely sent on a rescue mission to the doomed towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum as Mount Vesuvius erupted, scientists have discovered.

Initially thought to be that of a regular solider, the skeleton was among 300 found at Herculaneum in the 1980s. But now researchers have concluded that it belonged to a high-ranking officer with a Roman fleet sent on a rescue mission to evacuate panic-stricken inhabitants running for their lives.

Both Pompeii and Herculaneum, popular Roman seaside resorts south of modern-day Naples, were obliterated by the violent eruption in A.D. 79, covering people and houses in lava, mud and ash, preserving them for future archaeologists to discover.

The archaeological site of Herculaneum in Ercolano, near Naples, with the Mount Vesuvius volcano in the background, Italy.Andreas Solaro / AFP via Getty Images file

“When I arrived at Herculaneum in 2017 I realized that a lot of research went into the skeletons, but nobody thought of analyzing the tools found next to it,” Francesco Sirano, director of the archaeological site at Herculaneum, told NBC News. “So my team and I took a closer look, and what we found was astonishing.”

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When the skeleton was discovered 30 years ago, several clues set it apart from the hundreds of others unearthed by archaeologists. It still had a leather belt around its waist, and by its side there were a sword with an ivory hilt, a decorated dagger and a bagful of coins. Still, the skeleton was put on permanent exhibition and identified as a generic soldier.

In-depth analysis revealed that the belt was once decorated with images of a lion and a cherub made of silver and gold. The sword’s scabbard was also decorated with the image of an oval shield.

“All these clues suggest that he was not a simple soldier, more likely a high-ranking officer, even a praetorian,” Sirano says, referring to the elite units who served as personal bodyguards to Roman emperors. “Praetorians wore oval shields. And the coins he had on him was coincidentally the same amount of a praetorian’s monthly wage.”

Whatever the rank of the officer, Sirano said there is no doubt that he was part of a rescue mission launched by a roman fleet following the eruption of the Vesuvius.

“His skeleton was found on the beach, alongside hundreds of others, feet away from the remains of a boat.”

The rescue mission to Herculaneum and Pompeii is one of the most well-documented events of the period. It was led by Pliny the Elder, a historian and Roman naval officer who also died in the mission, and described by witness accounts collected in notes left by his nephew, Pliny the Younger.

A letter from Pliny the Younger to the historian Tacitus described the scene: "The ash already falling became hotter and thicker as the ships approached the coast and it was soon superseded by pumice and blackened burnt stones shattered by the fire.

The skeleton was discovered in Herculaneum in the 1980's.Parco Archeologico di Ercolano

"Suddenly the sea shallowed where the shore was obstructed and choked by debris from the mountain."

Recently another team of researchers performed a DNA test on the skull of another skeleton, found more than a hundred years ago on a beach near Pompeii, thought to be that of Pliny the Elder. Like the skeleton in Herculaneum, it was wearing a heavily ornamented sword and was draped with golden necklaces and bracelets.

“We used to believe that DNA testing wouldn’t work on skeletons this old. We now know it’s not true. It does give results,” said Sirano, who will start a new dig at the beach of Herculaneum this month with the help of the Packard Humanities Institute, a nonprofit foundation.

“We are now testing the DNA of the skeletons in Herculaneum, and we are retrieving amazing information," he said. "Where they were from, what they ate, all clues that are piece in a puzzle of history.”