Remnants of Pompeii initially were discovered in the 16th and 17th centuries but were not taken seriously. It was actually the discovery of Herculaneum -- a town that also had been destroyed by Mount Vesuvius's eruption -- that kicked off a series of excavations in the year 1738. A few years after that, Pompeii was discovered again and excavations of the area began. Pompeii was easier to excavate than Herculaneum and became the more popular site to explore. Italy's most acclaimed archaeologist, Giuseppe Fiorelli, made significant discoveries at Pompeii during the late 19th century. He noted findings such as facial expressions and other details about Pompeii's inhabitants on the day their city ceased to exist. As a result of further exploration, more than half of the city of Pompeii has been revealed.
Danger was nothing new to the citizens of Pompeii, who had witnessed a host of ominous signs leading up to the volcanic eruption that would destroy them. Before its ultimate destruction, Pompeii was rocked by a powerful earthquake in A.D. 63. Minor earthquakes continued to plague Pompeiians over the next several years. The beginning of the end for Pompeii and its people hit in August of A.D. 79, when a series of violent earthquakes led to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The toxic gases released by the erupting volcano killed many inhabitants who were desperately fleeing the city. Once several feet of pumice fragments had blanketed the city, a fine ash began to fall. People who had managed to survive to that point suffocated from inhalation of the ash, which rained down on Pompeii for three days. Historians have estimated that up to 75 percent of the city's population perished.
Interestingly, while the assumption has typically been that the citizens of Pompeii were killed by the inhalation of gas and ashes, a new study argues that the poor people found seemingly frozen in place died of the unbearable heat exposure of up to 575 F (300 C) [source: ArchNews].
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