"In the eruption that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum, the deaths were instantaneous. People didn't know what was happening to them," added Pier Paolo Petrone, the anthropologist who had excavated and analyzed the woman's skeleton. "But her death was more tragic because it wasn't sudden." In one final, futile gesture of self-protection, the woman and the man raised their arms to shield their faces—and wore that fretful salute into eternity.
The bones lay where the couple fell until December 1995, when Italian archaeologists, digging a test hole for a future gas pipeline outside the small town of San Paolo Bel Sito, about ten miles (16 kilometers) northeast of Vesuvius, discovered a human skeleton nested in the roots of a hazelnut tree. It was the woman. Soon after, they uncovered a second skeleton, the man, beside the first.
Organized crime has made a lamentable comeback in the squat, dusty towns surrounding Naples, and when workers stumble upon human remains, it's sometimes a tough decision whether to call in an archaeologist or a homicide detective. Not in this case. The skeletons' final resting place, a bumpy bed of volcanic rock covered by pumice, provided a precise geologic time stamp for the moment of death. All that was required was a volcanologist to read the layers of rock. That process was set in motion when Petrone and Mastrolorenzo got news of the discovery. Petrone rushed to the site; authorities granted him exactly two afternoons to extract the bones. "It was a miracle that we were able to save this," Petrone said.
The skeletons of San Paolo Bel Sito—frozen in terrified flight, their choice of a mistaken escape route immortalized in their weary, ossified repose—offered Italian scientists clues in a project that has combined volcanology, archaeology, and physical anthropology into something like a CSI: Vesuvius. Over the past decade the project has rewritten the story of the nearby volcano, adding ominous fuel to scientific debates about the danger of future eruptions.
The man and woman were not doomed refugees of the famous A.D. 79 eruption that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum. Rather they were Bronze Age inhabitants of one of the dozens of prehistoric villages that dotted this beautiful, fertile plain during an earlier—and, it turns out, more violent—eruption of Vesuvius. The Avellino eruption occurred approximately 3,780 years ago, and researchers now argue that it represents the nightmare blueprint for a future calamity that could envelop Naples itself.