Numerous urban centers in the Bay of Naples were completely destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. Pompeii and Herculaneum are the most famous of these, with their reputations as cities frozen in time due primarily to the extent of excavation and the plaster casts of dozens of dead bodies. Other areas were equally affected but are less understood, even today, because of their location underneath modern development. The villa complex of Oplontis is one of these.

The massive Villa A of Oplontis may have been that of Poppaea, the second wife of Emperor Nero, while the commercial structure called Oplontis B was the location of an import-export wine business. The opulent Villa A at Oplontis was unoccupied at the time of the eruption, but Oplontis B’s commercial center was very much in operation. More than 50 human skeletons have been recovered from one room of Oplontis B, with no people found anywhere else on the site.

Given the known time-of-death of inhabitants of the circum-Vesuvian area, this project uses previously unanalyzed human skeletons from the villa site of Oplontis and from the urban site of Pompeii to investigate the effects of catastrophic environmental change. In the summer of 2017, the project team created a photogrammetric model of the in-situ skeletons, 3D scanned many of the individual skulls, and undertook basic osteological analysis of all skeletons recovered to date.

The approach taken in this research project involves:

1) digitally preserving cultural heritage and using 3D and photogrammetric models to better understand the last moments of the people of Oplontis;

2) undertaking a demographic and mtDNA analysis of all skeletons to better understand the ancient Roman working class household;

3) using isotope, trace element, parasitological, and pathogen DNA analysis to study the diets and diseases of these individuals through their life course; and

4) combining these data along with additional biochemical results to investigate human responses to climate change at the household level.


This research interfaces with both modern archaeological approaches to preserving cultural heritage at risk of destruction and with contemporary approaches in the field of anthropology to open up access to comparative biological data from past societies. The project provides the first ever analysis of the skeletal collection from Oplontis, which has not been excavated to the degree that Pompeii and Herculaneum have, as well as the first 3D photogrammetry models of in situ skeletons dating to the Vesuvius eruption.