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ROME

Herculaneum dig sees Pliny's officer who died trying to help

Director Sirano shows novelties of ancient finds before new digs

Herculaneum dig sees Pliny's officer who died trying to help

ROME, MAY 9 - A man in uniform, whom the volcano's ferocity had thrown to the ground and killed in a few seconds, his face thrust into the sand, his arms bent forward seeking support. New excavations are set to begin at Herculaneum in the next few weeks, and archaeologists have returned to the ancient beach to complete searches which started 40 years ago, in the early 80s, when the remains of 300 fugitives were found right in this spot. The digs are aimed at conserving the ancient UNESCO site but will also serve to bring to light in its entirety the ancient path that led from the beach to the majestic Villa of the Papyri. Just recently site director Francesco Sirano conducted a dig that sheds fresh light on the identity of one of the victims who was discovered and catalogued in the first campaign. Initially identified as a simple soldier, the director tells ANSA, this man, with the preserved remains of part of his armour and the tools he carried in a sort of knapsack, may have had a more important role. "He may be," Sirano explained, "an officer of the fleet that took part in the rescue mission launched by Pliny the Elder to help the people in the towns and villas nestled on this part of the Bay of Naples". A navy soldier who came to rescue the desperate people of Herculaneum, crammed in their hundreds for hours on the beach and inside the 'fornixes' or storing containers which were normally used for stowing nets and fishing equipment. A man who didn't make it, he too was killed in a few devastating instants by the pyroclastic surges that swept down from Vesuvius and here engulfed houses, people and things at a speed of 80-100 kilometres per hour, also pushing dozens and dozens of bodies into the sea. One of the peculiar aspects of the archaeological site of Herculaneum is the fact that the conditions of the eruption, due to a different interplay of volcanic flows from that in nearby Pompeii, enabled the conservation of organic material, ranging from furniture to fabrics. The skeleton that is the protagonist of this story, classified with the number 26, was found with the traces of armour and a shoulder bag, a sort of rectangular knapsack, containing an assortment of small carpentry tools. Around his waist he wore a leather belt richly decorated with silver and gold plates, from which hung a sword, also decorated and fitted with a precious ivory hilt. There was an equally precious dagger on the other side of the body. And next to the corpse a considerable haul of coins, 12 silver denarii and two golden ones in all, a sum which at the time corresponded to the monthly wages of a Pretorian Guard. Bone analysis has revealed that he was a man aged between 40 and 45, used to physical activity and in good health. A soldier, then, but from what corps? The notion that he was stationed at Herculaneum has been ruled out, Sirano says, "because army garrisons in the Vesuvian area are not reported". So only two possibilities remain: that he was either a Pretorian or a member of the rescue fleet. The presence of Pretorians in the first century AD has been documented in the Bay of Naples and also in Pompeii, the director adds, but always on special duties. There are, however, two elements that appear to favour the second hypothesis, that he was a fleet soldier, indeed an officer tasked with the impossible mission of saving the people of Herculaneum: on the one hand the richness of his panoply of arms, very similar to those found in 1900 in a dig at Pompeii's Bottaro area and worn by what seems to have been a high-ranking officer or perhaps even the admiral of Pliny the Elder's fleet; and on the other hand the work implements that were in the knapsack that the Herculaneum man was carrying on his back and would identify him as a 'faber navalis', a well-known figure on Roman military ships, the engineers, the highly specialised carpenters. And last but not least, Sirano says, there is the hefty sum of money he had with him and the fact that the man's remains were found a short distance from the remains of a military vessel. Pending the completion of the new restoration work on the weapons of the Herculaneum soldier, all hypotheses remain open. But the novelties that have emerged from the dig, Sirano underscores, are already confirmation of the truly exceptional historical and archaeological interest of an excavation on Herculaneum's ancient beach. The dig may produce many new elements contributing to a historical and archaeological reconstruction of Ancient Rome's military corps. In the meantime, thanks to collaboration with the Packard Foundation, the new digs will get under way in a matter of days. The works will cover an area of around 2,000 metres and will see professionals from the Herculaneum Conservation Project working alongside the Park's experts. The expectations, 40 years after the first campaign, are very high. (ANSA).

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