Two newly discovered skeletons found at the doomed Roman town of Pompeii show that the most famous volcanic eruption of the ancient world also posed a less well-known threat: earthquakes.
The Italian Cultural Ministry on Tuesday revealed the bodies of two men, both probably in their 50s, who died in an earthquake triggered by the cataclysmic volcanic eruption at Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
The bodies were found covered in masonry from a collapsed wall — further examination showed they were killed by the impact, their bones crushed.
"Modern excavation techniques help us to better understand the inferno that completely destroyed the city of Pompeii over two days, killing many inhabitants," said the director of Pompeii Archaeological Park, Gabriel Zuchtriegel, a German archaeologist.
The eruption lasted for more than 24 hours and unleashed the power of many thousands of nuclear bombs on the surrounding Roman towns and communities.
Pyroclastic surges — in which hot ash and lava rushes down the side of a volcano like an avalanche at more than 50 mph — destroyed almost everything in their path.
So fierce was the wall of destruction that ash fragments were found between the bones of the two men's bodies, according to cutting-edge scientific methods that can determine to a victim’s final seconds the process of events leading up to a death.
But the new methods show that the pair were most likely two of many people killed by devastating earthquakes that hit alongside the eruption.
Sophie Hay, an archaeologist who works in the media department of the Pompeii Archaeological Park, told NBC News that the earthquake that killed the two men seems to have happened in the early stages of Vesuvius' eruption.
"The upper part of the wall had cleaved off and shifted laterally which is a phenomenon characteristic of earth tremors as opposed to the force of a pyroclastic flow. Thus we know these collapses, that killed the two men happened at the initial stages of the eruption," she said.
Zuchtriegel and other archaeologists wrote in an online journal, Park Archeological of Pompeii, that they had to remove layers upon layers of lapilli, small fragments of ash and volcanic material, to find the bodies. Ash and rock fragments are estimated to have fallen at a rate of 220 pounds per 10 square feet per hour for 18 hours, they said.
The dig team excavating the Insula dei Casti Amanti, or House of Chaste Lovers, also found eight Roman containers, amphorae, leaning against a well, exactly where they were left nearly 2,000 years ago.
Pompeii, about 14 miles southeast of modern-day Naples, was home to about 13,000 people. Both Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum were seaside resorts favored by wealthy Romans, and both were left in ruin.
Where the two men were discovered was not, however, a grand palace but an ordinary place undergoing renovations days after a previous earthquake in a period well-known for intense seismic activity.
"This house was not particularly luxurious. It was more of a workplace with many objects, such as amphorae, cooking pots, and they were doing lime work," Zuchtriegel said.
"There were amphorae with water used to plaster the walls. We see a city here in a transformation that was trying to recover, but then with the eruption everything is crushed in just two days of hell."
Archaeologists estimate that many of the buildings and bodies Vesuvius enveloped in 79 A.D. are still buried and undiscovered.
The Pompeii site was not rediscovered until the 16th century, and it has since become a major tourist spot — a European Union-funded project worth $115 million is ongoing to uncover more of its secrets.
"The discovery of these two skeletons shows us that we still need to study a lot, do more excavations to bring out everything that is still [hiding] in this immense treasure," Italian Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano said in a statement.
Earlier this year an opulent house in Pompeii was unveiled after 20 years of restoration. In 2020 archaeologists uncovered the Roman equivalent of a fast-food joint: a frescoed termopolium, or hot drinks counter, which would have catered to wealthy tourists.