Graffiti Reveals When Mt. Vesuvius Really Erupted—And It’s Not When We Think

Published October 17, 2018

"The inscription appears in a room of the house which was undergoing refurbishment, while the rest of the rooms had already been completed; works must therefore have been ongoing at the time of the eruption."

Pompeii Graffiti Pointing

EPAThe graffiti found on the wall of a house in Pompeii ruins.

Newly discovered graffiti at the Pompeii archaeology site might have just rewritten the history of one of the world’s most notorious natural disasters.

The exact date of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption— which devastated surrounding cities like Pompeii— has been long and hotly debated. But a simple charcoal scrawling might have just settled the debate once and for all.

According to a statement, excavations in the Regio V area revealed an inscription written by a builder on one wall of a house that was undergoing reconstruction in ancient Pompeii. The short, scrawled note, in fact, places the explosion date of Vesuvius two months later than historians previously thought.

“The inscription appears in a room of the house which was undergoing refurbishment, while the rest of the rooms had already been completed; works must, therefore, have been ongoing at the time of the eruption,” researchers said in the statement.

Doomed Cities Vesuvius Ruins

Wikimedia Commons/Sergey Ashmarin
Ruins of Pompeii.

The fading charcoal inscription reads: “the 16th day before the calends of November,” or Oct. 17. The team consequently believes that the explosion must have occurred sometime after the inscription was made, as it suggests that life in Pompeii seemed normal at this time.

Also, because charcoal is a “fragile and evanescent” material, archaeologists believe that it would not have been able to last a very long time after it was used. This evidence then places the new date of the explosion of Vesuvius on Oct. 24.

“It is highly probable that it can be dated to the October of CE, and more precisely to a week prior to the great catastrophe, which according to this hypothesis occurred on the 24th October,” the archaeologists concluded.

Pompeii Graffiti

Parco ArcheologicoThe graffiti found on the wall of a house in Pompeii ruins.

The date of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption has been hotly contested because there has historically been only one source to place the disaster on August 24. The date comes from letters written by Pliny the Younger, a lawyer and author in ancient Rome who witnessed the explosion, to Roman senator Tacitus detailing the death of his uncle.

Pliny the Younger wrote to Tacitus: “On the 24 of August, about one in the afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud…” He then said that his uncle took a ship to rescue people who were in danger of the volcano, but he never returned and Pliny the Younger watched the devastation happen from across the bay.

This charcoal graffiti adds to the growing pile of evidence which supports a later date of the volcanic eruption. For example, autumnal fruits, heating braziers, and victims wearing thick clothes were all found in the ruins of Pompeii. Some historians believe that these remains point to an explosion date in the chillier fall season instead of in summer.

The debate over the destruction date will surely rage on, but this graffiti is a big win for those who champion the later date.


Next, read about how Mount Vesuvius boiled the blood and exploded the brains of its victims. Then take a look at the headless skeleton of a man trying to flee Mount Vesuvius which was found in Pompeii.

Caroline Redmond
Caroline is a writer and Florida-transplant currently living in New York City.
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