Update by Dr Estelle Lazer
We conducted field seasons in Pompeii in October 2018 and January 2019. This work was funded by an Industry and Community Seed Funding grant from the University of Sydney.
Our first field season was extremely brief and essentially experimental. We wanted to establish better techniques for X-raying casts on site and to determine whether we could obtain readable X-ray images through lime cement. Ideally, we would have preferred to CT scan all of the casts as this would provide us with maximum information but this is not always possible as many of the victims ended their mortal lives in positions that make it impossible for them to enter the gantry of a CT scanner. In addition, a number of victims were cast on the ground or are still attached to considerable quantities of pyroclastic material that makes it impossible for them to be moved, while others are simply too fragile to be transported to a CT scanner. Taking X-ray images through thick plaster, which is essentially the same density as bone is extremely challenging and it is a credit to our digital X-ray engineer that in spite of the difficulties, we have been able to get some fantastic results.
Our October team consisted of Associate Professor Kathryn Welch and myself, as directors of the project, Stijn Luyck, our amazing digital X-ray engineer, with whom we have worked since the beginning of the project, and an equine vet, Dr Julia Ridder, who has worked for many years with Stijn in X-raying horses. They are extremely efficient and make a formidable team.
The portable digital X-ray machine that we use was specifically developed for veterinary purposes as there are many animals, like elephants, giraffes and horses, that do not easily enter veterinary clinics. They provided the most recent iteration of the SOUND SPRINT AIR that uses a Canon 810C panel and dedicated algorithms and anti-scatter software to remove the effects of secondary radiation. The X-ray source was a battery powered generator. This has less power than a generator with cables but had the distinct advantage of not needing hard wires that made it more suitable for use around fragile casts. Our experimental work in October 2018 indicated that it was capable of providing good results.
In October, we examined a number of the nine casts in lime cement located in Region 1 that are still in situ above the lapilli. This material is not exactly radio-opaque, but there are fewer chances of obtaining readable X-ray images than with plaster. We also examined the four victims cast outside the so-called Porta Nocera that are displayed under cover near the location of their discovery. These plaster casts also present a challenge as they lie close to the ground and it is extremely difficult to angle the equipment to achieve readable X-ray images that are not distorted.
Our January field season extended the work we undertook in October. This season particularly benefitted from the establishment of improved techniques for obtaining X-rays through the thick plaster. Our team was considerably larger, including Associate Professor Kathryn Welch, myself, Stijn Luyck, Julia Ridder (assistant radiographer), Jeremy Van Brakel, Dr Alain Middleton (forensic dentist), Associate Professor Dzung Vu (radiologist and anatomist), and Oshry Chageg and James Buckman (photographers). As with our October field season, our work on site was overseen by Pompeii Archaeological Park representative and physical anthropologist, Valeria Amoretti.
Inclement January weather hampered our efforts. We could not subject the delicate X-ray machinery to heavy rain. So we concentrated on casts that are stored in covered areas, including those stored in glass cases dating back to the 19th century. Opening these cases was particularly difficult for the workmen on the site but they proved up to the task.
We were able to X-ray 18 casts during the course of a week. This led to many interesting new discoveries. For example, we were able to establish sex and age for some of the casts made in the 19th and 20th centuries and also found non-skeletal inclusions embedded within the plaster, like buckles.
Even in such a short space of time, there have been so many improvements in technology and techniques that revisiting cases that we studied in the first year of the Pompeii Cast Project proved worthwhile. For example, the 16th victim that was cast in 1890, was first X-rayed in 2015. At that time, we found little skeletal evidence, apart from the lower limbs, the feet and hand bones. In January we discovered evidence of some cranial material, as well as teeth and bone from the upper and lower jaw in the region of the shoulder.
We completed another very successful season of fieldwork in April, which will be the subject of a documentary that will go to air later in the year. We will keep everyone informed as more details become available. Watch this space and don't forget to follow us on facebook @pompeiicastproject
We would, as always like to thank our fabulous team, who worked through in very difficult and uncomfortable conditions in January.
We would very much like to thank our partners in this project, the Pompeii Archaeological Park. We are particularly grateful to the Director General of the Pompeii Archaeological Park, Professor Massimo Osanna for his continued support of the Pompeii Cast Project. Special thanks go to our excellent colleagues, Dr Grete Stefani, Dr Alberta Martellone, Dr Bruno di Nigris and Dr Valeria Amoretti, without whom we would not have been able to achieve our goals in October and January.
We would also like to thank the University of Sydney for the grant that made this work possible and the support of our school partners at Chester Hill High School and Chifley College as well as Academy Travel.
The season in Pictures
Photographs by the wonderful Oshry Chageg - © The Pompeii Cast Project
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