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Evidence of more than 200 survivors of Mount Vesuvius eruption discovered in ancient Roman records

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On Aug. 24, in A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted, shooting over 3 cubic miles of debris up to 20 miles (32.1 kilometers) in the air. As the ash and rock fell to Earth, it buried the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

According to most modern accounts, the story pretty much ends there: Both cities were wiped out, their people frozen in time.

It only picks up with the rediscovery of the cities and the excavations that started in earnest in the 1740s.

But recent research has shifted the narrative. The story of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius is no longer one about annihilation; it also includes the stories of those who survived the eruption and went on to rebuild their lives.

The search for survivors and their stories has dominated the past decade of my archaeological fieldwork, as I’ve tried to figure out who might have escaped the eruption. Some of my findings are featured in an episode of the new PBS documentary, “Pompeii: The New Dig.”

Making it out alive

Pompeii and Herculaneum were two wealthy cities on the coast of Italy just south of Naples. Pompeii was a community of about 30,000 people that hosted thriving industry and active political and financial networks. Herculaneum, with a population of about 5,000, had an active fishing fleet and a number of marble workshops. Both economies supported the villas of wealthy Romans in the surrounding countryside.

In popular culture, the eruption is usually depicted as an apocalyptic event with no survivors: In episodes of the TV series “Doctor Who” and “Loki,” everyone in Pompeii and Herculaneum dies.

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