Here Lies the Skull of Pliny the Elder, Maybe

The Roman admiral and scholar died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Might this really be his cranium?

Comments: 27

  1. Always fascinated by new findings coming from the ruins of Pompeii. One can only imagine the sight Pliney and the crew on their Roman galley witnessed as Vesuvius was erupting. I know Pliney the Younger offers an account but I can only imagine both the fear and excitment on board the Admiral's galley as they closed in on Pompeii. I have climbed to the crater of Vesuvius on three occasions. Each time I began the hike to the top I'd recite Pliney's immortal words, "Fortunte favors the brave." After all, as it was in 79 AD so to it is today, a very active volcano.

  2. @Jay Amberg Climbed Vesuvius myself not long ago. Would love to do it again. Planning my 3rd trip to Pompei now. Endlessly fascinating. Went to Naples last October to the Archeological Museum. The collection of art and items from the Pompei AD 79 eruption is superb, esp the mosaics. They had an exhibition House of the Papyri from the Herculaneum excavation, unfortunately is was closed the time I went. Also in Herculaneum the House of the Papyri is not available to visit. It is still being excavated. The whole story of the vast library of ancient texts of philosophers, scientists etal that we haven't developed the technology to read yet (all are carbonized and fragile) is fascinating. That makes the Pliny the Elder story so poignant still, so much still a mystery.

  3. From what I understand, Pliny the Elder was trying to rescue Rectina and the library of papyrii at her villa in Ercolano (Herculaneum). I think they were unable to land there and ended up in Stabiae where they died on the beach due to the collapse of a villa where they were trying to stay safe. Stabiae (now Castellamare di Stabiae) has 2 fantastic excavated villas open to the public, Villa Adriana and Villa San Marco, 1/2 hour drive from Pompeii. Fascinatng story.

  4. Just in time for beer week.

  5. What an interesting article! Please note though that a skull cannot ruminate (i.e. chew cud or be deep in thought). 'Rested" would have been a better choice.

  6. Interesting indeed, although I tripped over the ruminating cranium. Perhaps it was meant ironically?

  7. @cadv lib Literary license. A ruminating skull would be appropriate if it were indeed that of Pliny.

  8. @JSBx It's obviously a joke. Lighten up ,JSBx.

  9. The Pompeians didn't stand a chance from the beginning of the eruption because of the wind direction. Those in the town of Herculaneum north of Pompeii did have several hours to flee north, but hundreds didn't and died eventually.

  10. A parazonium is a specific extreme odd shape of a dagger, which is symbolic in Roman mythology. It is carried by gods in depictions of them, and in depictions of an Emperor. It is not just a knife or a weapon, it is a symbol of high rank. Since we have the actual one in question, it could be examined for further indications of such use as a symbol of rank, such as decorations on it. They tended to be elaborate.

  11. I’ve always wondered who the surviving witnesses were who informed Pliny the Younger who only wrote about this many years later. Given the circumstances of the eruption, I would doubt that anyone close enough to Pliny the Elder at his death would have survived to tell any tale. Preserving Pliny’s heroism and curiosity are in themselves worthwhile and his life story should be inspiring enough. No wonder The Younger sought to preserve his fame. The desire to get closer to him by claiming to have found his bones strikes more of crass commercialism than reality. By the way, Daisy Dunn’s book provides very interesting insights into not only the Plinys but Roman society in the first century.

  12. @Charlie in NY Pliny the Elder was certainly heroic and curious, but one has to question his wisdom, given that once he landed in Stabiae, he "feasted, bathed, and slept"!

  13. Amazing. This certainly sounds like it could be Pliny’s skull. The circumstantial evidence all appears to fit. Of course, how can we ever be sure? The story of the Plinys offers the kind of first person accounts of history that reminds you these were people like us, living lives that could be very unpredictable. If you haven’t read them, a quick online search will give you access to translations of Pliny the Younger’s letters. They are a beautiful and immediate accounts of the tragedy that are easy and enjoyable to read.

  14. I agree with Mary Beard: fake news! According to the letter by Pliny's nephew, his body was found two days after his death: "When daylight returned on the 26th—two days after the last day he had seen—his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death." It's hard for me to believe that people just left his body where it was. I have to imagine that people took the body and gave it the normal funeral rites somewhere else.

  15. Sounds like wishful thinking to me, along with some of the claims about supposed relics of the saints. Isotope studies are a great tool in the kit of bioarchaeology, but to be able to identify a person of note in a catastrophe that struck thousands of people in AD 79 is like seeking a needle in the proverbial haystack. It makes great press, but it's an archaeological long shot.

  16. So Rectina sent a messenger 25 miles or so with a note but she herself could not escape unless Pliny came to get her? I imagine there is more to it but it has been lost in time.

  17. Probably not Pliny's skull...but what is with the snarky attitude toward the cherry picked "humorous" sayings of Pliny? Pretend he was an elder from an indigenous tribe (oh...he was!) and give him a little credit for trying to learn more about the natural world so long ago.

  18. Old Gaius there would have been a good Republican.

  19. This piece should have spent more time discussing the most titanic flaw in the theory that the skull is Pliny's: the likelihood that his family would have provided proper funeral rites for this corpse. There's no way they would have just left it in the ruins, to be rediscovered millennia in the future. Anyone arguing otherwise needs a very strong argument indeed.

  20. Oh brother... This claim is as unprovable as it is unimportant to modern discovery, study and preservation of truly valuable history. Whereas the discovery of Richard III's remains in Leicester UK was a significant validation of recorded history, this has the odor of a roadside attraction in the making with absolutely no basis in anything other than wishful thinking.

  21. If it was Pliny the Elders skull you would have thought someone would have mentioned in the ancient texts the big ugly hole where his nose should have been. At the very least there should be some evidence in some old scrolls of Pliny the child scarer or Pliny the horrendously ugly and his wife Blind Margaret the uncritical, just a thought.

  22. “Fanboy.” Really? This injects a cheekiness that doesn’t not contribute to the discussion. This doesn’t sound like the Times.

  23. Edward Gibbon ("Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire") has spoken of "that immense register in which Pliny has deposited the discoveries, the arts, and errors of mankind." Well, my goodness. Tartarus (a nod to my Roman friends)--Tartarus will freeze over before I try and cure a cold by kissing a mouse. I'd rather just have the cold, thank you. How on earth (when all is said and done) could they be sure such a skull belonged to Pliny the Elder? Nothing (to this old codger anyway) is so seemingly miraculous as DNA testing--but we HAVE no DNA from any of the Pliny's. If we did, it'd be another story. But we don't. His literary nephew (Pliny the Younger) speaks of his uncle--and his mother likewise--as being rather heavy and corpulent. And that elder Pliny (it has been suggested) suffered from asthma. Any way of deducing these qualities from the skull? Or any other bone fragment that might have attached itself to that skull. There's such a desire in all of us, isn't there?--to make sense of things. "Only connect!" E. M. Forster adjured us--and we're still trying, Mr. Forster--we're still trying. But the man died trying to save people. He wasn't simply out studying volcanic eruptions--fascinating (no doubt) as he found them. And that's all to the good. "Discoveries, arts, and errors" notwithstanding. May he rest in peace.

  24. This is a consequence of amateurs excavating archaeological sites. Aside from disturbing an intact site, the greatest pity is the selling off of the found ornaments and their separation from the skeleton that wore them. Whether or not this was Pliny, it was a find worth properly cataloging and preserving.

  25. In terms of preserving the interest in this history, we might benefit more from the imagined connection with Pliny this skull presents. There's something so powerful about historical objects and places in making these accounts vivid to people. I doubt an archeologist would agree if the pretense it is Pliny's skull confuses people about what archeology is capable of. So perhaps they can split the difference and call it 'a skull that might have been Pliny's.'

  26. Well it's either Pliny or Yorick.

  27. Whether or not there is convincing evidence that these remains and artifacts are actually those of Pliny the Elder matters not. The idea that they could be is tantalizing. The interest and research generated by the search for the facts takes us back to that day, the point in time and the circumstances under which Pliny the Elder might have met his fate. The museum where he is held could just put a nice brass sign out that reads, "Here are the remains of Pliny the Elder. Why not?" That should keep everybody happy.