Interview with Dr Estelle Lazer on her latest research in Pompeii

Casting aspersions: Modern medical technology meets classical archaeology

Some three decades ago, Australian archaeologist Dr Estelle Lazer gained international attention by taking a rigorous, scientific approach to the human remains at Pompeii. More than any other aspect of the site, the skeletons of victims of the AD79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius have piqued our interest. But, according to Lazer, “the value of human remains was not appreciated as a scientific resource”. Rather they were subject matter for myth and fiction. Since the early 18th century there has been a steady stream of prose, poetry, television, film and even an opera about the lives of Pompeiians, much of it inspired by the bones. The creation of plaster casts of the victims from some skeletons in the 19th and early 20th century did nothing to reduce this tendency for “romancing the bones”, as she once put it.

Estelle undertook the first ever comprehensive and systematic study of the bones (not the casts), painstakingly sorting, examining and classifying what she found. “The human bones were not discarded” she says, “but stored in piles, along with other finds from Pompeii, in ancient buildings on the site that were not accessible to the public. The bones became mixed up and were left largely unstudied for centuries.” Estelle’s research provided a unique snapshot of the people who were living in Pompeii in AD 79 – scientifically speaking “a large sample of an ancient population who all died of the same cause at the same time”. Estelle discovered evidence of age-related disorders that suggested that a significant proportion of the population was reaching old age and she found that the sample of victims appeared to reflect a random sample of a normally distributed population, not just the old and inform who could not escape the eruption.

While Lazer’s initial research remains an important breakthrough in our approach to studying the past, she has not rested on her laurels. A typical year sees her making several visits to Pompeii and undertaking new research, participating in television documentaries on Pompeii and speaking to audiences around the world. We caught up with Estelle to ask her about her latest work – using modern medical imaging techniques on site at Pompeii.

Q.1 So, Estelle, what are you working on right now?

My current project involves X-raying and CT scanning all the casts of the Pompeian victims that have been made to date. My initial work involved skeletal identification from individual bones from skeletons that had been poorly stored. In theory, the plaster casts of the victims encapsulate entire skeletons. This indicated that there was the potential to significantly increase our knowledge of the victims as making diagnoses from complete skeletons is far more reliable than from individual skeletal elements. This work represents the first scientific research that has ever been performed on these amazing finds that reflect the disaster that destroyed settlements around the Bay of Naples. It is non-invasive, which means that we can-do high-level research without damaging the casts.

A cast of one of the victims of the Mt Vesuvius eruption of 79AD enters the CT scanner.

Q.2 Who is behind the new research? Who is funding it?

The Pompeii Cast project is being conducted as a joint project between the University of Sydney and the Pompeii Archaeological Park (PAP). We have a Memorandum of Agreement that was initiated by the PAP in recognition of the importance of this study and which makes us partners. Our team is multi-disciplinary and multi-national, with researchers from the University of Sydney, the New South Wales Division of Forensic Medicine, the University of Notre Dame, the Philips technology company and even a local hospital in the region. Much of the project has been supported by a TV documentary jointly produced by the BBC, Smithsonian and the Franco-German Arte network, and another for Channel 5 in the UK. In April 2019 we are working on a third documentary for National Geographic, which involves the X-ray of 13 casts found in the so-called Garden of the Fugitives at Pompeii.

An aerial shot of the Garden of the Fugitives, with Mount Vesuvius in the background.
A cast of one of the victims found in the so-called ‘Garden of the Fugitives’.

Q.3 What kind of medical imaging equipment are you using?

We are using the most up to date medical imaging equipment available to us. CT scanning provides us with the most comprehensive documentation of a cast and its contents. They provide us with a series of X-ray slices that can be stitched together by computer programs and which then can provide images of the contents of the cast from any direction. Post processing enables us to reconstruct both the outside and the inside of the casts. We can identify different densities of plaster, which tells us how the casts have been created and restored over time. We are able to isolate individual elements within the casts so that they can be studied both in detail and from any angle. In addition, the data we collect enables us to make a 3D print of the bones embedded in the plaster.

Unfortunately, because of the manner in which the victims met their fate, they are often in positions that make it impossible for them to fit into a conventional CT scanner. These casts are being examined with state of the art portable digital X-ray technology. This technology was originally developed for large animals such as elephants or race horses. It is perfect for Pompeii as it can be taken into tight spaces without compromising the unique archaeological remains.

A remarkable CT scan of the head of one of the victims, inside a cast. The colours are an artefact created by Philips.

Q.4 How do you get X-ray equipment onto an archaeological site? You can’t tell a plaster cast to hold its breath or turn around, so how do you perform the X-ray?

In 2015, Philips brought a 16-slice hospital CT scanner onto the edge of the site by truck. It was set up just outside the ancient wall at the southern side of Pompeii, near the amphitheatre. Casts were carried across the site to the machine by restorers on a stretcher that was specially designed to ensure that the casts were not damaged by vibration during transportation. Subsequently, we have been able to take some of the more robust casts off site to the nearby hospital in specially designed containers. The technology for portable digital X-rays has been improving since we started the project and the equipment has become smaller and lighter. The X-ray generator can now operate with batteries and without cables. Images can be reviewed almost immediately on a computer screen or tablet.

The casts cannot be manipulated. We have to work around them. This can be extremely challenging, especially when they are lying on the ground, as is the case for the majority of the casts that are displayed outside in or near their original find spots.

A CT scanning machine from a local hospital on site at Pompeii.

Q.5 What has been your most remarkable discovery to date in this new research?

It has become apparent that there was as much art as science in the manufacture of the casts of the victims. We have discovered that in a number of cases, considerable numbers of bones were removed prior to casting and reinforcing rods and staples made of iron were inserted to strengthen the casts. In the case of the dog, which was found in the so-called house of Orpheus in 1874, all the bones were removed prior to casting and much metal was introduced. Examination of the plaster tells us that it was constructed out of six or seven different pieces.

This aspect of the project is extremely important as it is essential that we can identify what dates to the 1st century AD and what has been ‘improved’ in the 19th and early 20th centuries for the enjoyment of visitors to the site. We have also embarked on an oral history of people who have worked on the production of casts or have at least spoken to restorers who are no longer alive.

Dr Estelle Lazer and members of her team amid their research subjects.

Q.6 There’s always enormous interest in Pompeii, both from the academic community and the general public. How is your work being disseminated to a broader audience?

One of the advantages of working on television documentaries is that the results of our research are disseminated to large audiences across the world fairly soon after fieldwork is completed. I have also been giving public lectures to large audiences across the world since the project started, We also have a blog site, which will be linked to the official Pompeii Archaeological Park (PAP) website. We plan to publish a popular book at the end of the project and hope to develop a travelling exhibition with the PAP and the new museum at the University of Sydney.

The BBC’s recent popular documentary on Pompeii, presented by Professor Mary Beard. Dr Estelle Lazer’s work on the casts featured heavily in the documentary.

Q.7 Of all the archaeological sites known to us, Pompeii is perhaps the one most steeped in legend and even fiction. Has your recent, science-based research overturned any widely held beliefs about the ancient Roman world, or at least given them a nudge?

The casts have spawned their own mythology and stories have been invented about these victims, purely on the basis of superficial inspection and circumstantial evidence. For example, pretty much every cast with a vaguely distended abdomen was interpreted as a pregnant female. Our research does not support this and in some cases indicates that these individuals are not even female. Similarly, a cast that was said to have been a crippled old beggar turns out to be a sturdy young individual with a miscast hand that had previously been interpreted as a begging bag. We aim to use the skeletal evidence to return their actual lives, not those superimposed on the casts by scholars and purveyors of popular culture, who have essentially used the casts as props for storytelling.

Story-telling, much of it ill-informed, has been a constant feature of writing about Pompeii for nearly 200 years. Estelle Lazer’s research replaces some of the narrative-driven accounts of the disaster.

Q.8 We know that non-Italians have been fascinated by Pompeii for centuries. Are the Italians equally interested in the sites, or in recent research?

The Vesuvian sites have captured the popular imagination since they were first exposed to a fascinated world in the 18th century. They have attracted visitors and scholarship from all over the world. There have been teams doing research in Pompeii from nearly every nation, including Finland, Sweden, Holland, America, Australia, Japan, England and Germany. The level of Italian interest in the nation’s cultural heritage is extremely high, with teams from many areas of the country conducting research on the site. It’s a prestigious site of undoubted national significance. Much of the recent research on the site is Italian led. And there certainly is real interest in our current project as demonstrated by the request of the Pompeii Archaeological Park for us to have a Memorandum of Agreement that makes us partners with them for the Pompeii Cast Project.

Q.9 I imagine the casts you work with, and indeed the entire archaeological site of Pompeii, is rather fragile. What kinds of risks to their ongoing survival are posed by our very interest in the site? Is there a need for urgent action? What do we stand to lose?

Pompeii is a remarkable site. It is the best known of all the ancient sites that were preserved in the AD 79 destruction layer. Maintaining and preserving a huge above ground site of about 66 hectares – and that is just the area within the walls – is an endless task and requires constant vigilance to ensure that problems are recognised and dealt with before they become disasters. The site is exposed to the elements and requires constant conservation work. It hosts somewhere between two and a half and three million visitors a year and risks being loved to death. Visitor education is one of the keys to ensuring that the site is preserved for future generations to enjoy. Visitors need to appreciate that the ancient remains are fragile and that touching wall paintings, climbing on ancient structures and taking tiny souvenirs, like fragments of mosaics, will result in the destruction of this unique piece of our world’s cultural heritage.

The drone footage above offers a great aerial view over Pompeii as it explores this vast and immense site.

Dr Estelle Lazer

Dr Estelle Lazer is an archaeologist with an international reputation for her work on the human victims of Pompeii. Her PhD studied the site’s human skeletons, and her current project is to CT scan and X-ray the unique casts of these victims. Estelle’s book, 'Resurrecting Pompeii', was published by Routledge and her work forms a core part of the Ancient History syllabus for the NSW Higher School Certificate. Estelle is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney. In October 2017, the University of Sydney and the Pompeii Archaeological Park signed an historic Memorandum of Agreement to partner in an important new scanning project led by Estelle. Her research has received considerable media attention in print, radio and television, with two documentaries (one for the BBC and Smithsonian, and another in production for Britain’s Channel 5) ensuring a wide audience for her fascinating findings.


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