Plaster casts of Pompeii

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Plaster casts of Pompeii
Casts from the Macellum (Pompeii).JPG
Type 1 Archeology
Type 2 Forgery
Type 3 Myth creation
Years 1863 until present
Place South of Naples
Perps Giuseppe Fiorelli (1800s),
Estelle Lazer (2000s)
Massimo Ossana (2000s)

The plaster casts or body casts of Pompeii are a series of sculpture-like objects that are allegedly made out of the voids left by many of the victims of the Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD, in Pompeii and neighboring Oplontis. The first ones were made under the direction of Giuseppe Fiorelli, but they are still being made as late as 2018. Nowhere else have such casts ever been made, even not at nearby Herculaneum.

They have influenced the imagination of millions of people around the world. Copies have been made and are transported around the world and shown in different museums or exhibitions.

It will be argued here that they are physically impossible to have been made as claimed, and that they are much more likely all fakes or forgeries. If that is the case they can be considered as a form of vicsims. Their first appearance in 1863 was at the time of the so-called Italian “reunification”, and helped to create the image that the Italian Peninsula was once united as the homeland of the Roman Empire.

A lot of recent funding for "investigating" the casts with modern equipment comes from television stations.


  • Start of the rebellion “Risorgimento” (resurgence) which eventually in 1870 leads to the unification of Italy (actually the annexation by the Kingdom of Piedmont of the rest of Italy )
  • in the Kingdom of two Sicilies (of which Naples is a part), because of a military coup, king Ferdinand I approves a constitution. *With help of the Austrian empire, Ferdinand I later regains absolute power.
  • Birth of Giuseppe Fiorelli in Naples
  • King Ferdinand I dies and is succeeded by Francis I (who dies in 1830 to be succeeded by his son Ferdinand II)
  • Different revolutions and uprisings in Europe, including central Italy. The Austrian empire intervenes again.
  • For reasons of dishonesty, Carlo Bonucci is demoted from his post as Architect-Director of the excavations of Pompeii. Due to illness of his successor regains his position.
  • Fiorelli studies law from the age of 11 and obtains a degree in legal studies at the age of 18. He was also a student of italic languages, numismatics – the study of coins and epigraphy – the study and interpretation of ancient inscriptions.
  • At an age of 21, Fiorelli is appointed an inspector in the Soprintendenza Generale degli Scavi – the body responsible for all excavations in the Naples region
  • Fiorelli is appointed as appointed as inspector specifically for Pompeii excavations site
  • First war of Italian independence by the Kingdom of Sardinia and Italian volunteers led by Giuseppe Garibaldi against the Austrian Empire
  • Fiorelli has sympathy for the movement and allegedly of raises a company of volunteer soldiers from the guards and diggers at the Pompeii excavation site.
  • On 24 april, Fiorelli is arrested and imprisoned for about 2 months. Starts editing the old journals of the excavations of Pompeii in order to publish them.
  • Following a complaint of a member of the Accademia Ercolanes, Bernardo Quaranta, police raid his home and confiscate the printed copy and his manuscripts. Fiorelli is again imprisoned until January 1750, when his case is dismissed.
  • Fiorelli loses his job
  • Employed as personal secretary to Leopold, Count of Syracuse, brother of the Bourbon King Ferdinand II, who used his influence to put Fiorelli in charge of the excavations at Cumae, another archaeological site in the Naples area
  • The 2nd War of Italian Independence began in April 1859 when the Sardinian Prime Minister Count Cavour found an ally in Napoleon III.
  • Fiorelli writes a letter to king Francis II, son and successor of recently dead Ferdinand II, urging him to abdicate gracefully instead of being deposed
  • Giuseppe Garibaldi takes Naples after the king took his army to Gaeta
  • At the end of the year Fiorelli was appointed as Inspector-Director of Excavations in Pompeii
  • 13 February: end of siege of Gaeta, Francis II, The King of the Two Sicily’s is deposed
  • On 18 February, Victor Emmanuel assembles the deputies of the first Italian Parliament in Turin.
  • On 17 March, the Parliament proclaims Victor Emmanuel King of Italy
  • 27 March 1861 Rome is declared Capital of Italy, even though it is still Vatican land and not yet in the new Kingdom.
  • In February the first casts are made by Fiorelli
  • appointed also as director of the Naples National Archaeological Museum.
  • september 11: army of the Kingdom of Italy crosses the papal frontier to besiege Rome
  • october 9: annexation of Rome and Latium
  • footprints are found from 3 hominids in Tanzania who supposedly walked in fresh ash of a Volcano. *Later research finds that the volcano has nothing to do with the prints. [R 1]
  • DNA testing from a pair casts reveals that they are unrelated males, possibly gay
  • allegedly DNA in bones and teeth can survive temperatures of 250° C[R 2]
  • First cast allegedly made of a horse in Pompeii.
  • Photos from this cast differ quite a lot across publications, for example in some of the photos it has an ear.

[R 3] [M 1] [M 2] [M 3]

Conventional explanation

The process of how the casts are made is described consistently in different sources. [R 4] What follows is a chronological enumeration of the different steps that must be involved. Please take the time to scrutinize each of the claims or suppositions that are made. A very simplified drawing of the process can be found here[R 5].

  1. Vesuvius eruption buries Pompeii with a layer of porous ash and pumice of about 2.5-2.8 meters.
  2. The beings that will become casts (people, dog, pig, boar, donkeys, mules) climb on top of this layer
  3. They die (originally thought through asphyxiation, now by a thermal shock from a high-temperature pyroclastic flow) their clothing and flesh stays intact
  4. Bodies are covered first in fine ash, preserving phenomenal detail. The total ash layer is above them is about 2 meters
  5. Ash around the bodies hardens
  6. All of the organic material except teeth and bones decomposes and is drained through the porous layers of ash and pumice from step 1
  7. Diggers start digging from the top and carefully remove the ash until they notice the start of a cavity.
  8. The bones are removed through the top of the cavity[R 6] (this was not done for later casts)
  9. Plaster is poured through the top of the cavity until it fills the entire cavity (the cavities sometimes having the thickness of a child’s fingers.)
  10. The rest of the ash is dug away.
  11. The hard layer around the cast is removed.
  12. Some restoration work is necessary, because there are holes resulting from air bubbles in the plaster as it dried.

Discussion of the above steps

  1. This was not possible for the horses, who were found inside the stable.[R 3] What was also remarkable here is that from only one (and a half) of three horses casts could be made, the skeleton of the third horse is seen completely in touch with the ashes without any void left by its flesh.
  2. As was mentioned above, the scientific consensus after a study in 2010 is that the victims died from a thermal shock caused by a high-temperature pyroclastic flow. [R 2][M 4]At Pompeii "temperatures outdoors—and indoors—rose up to 300°C [570°F] and more, enough to kill hundreds of people in a fraction of a second." "These features suggest temperatures of ca 500°C in Herculaneum, which matches well with previous supporting evidence, and a temperature of ca 600°C in Oplontis." "Therefore heat was enough for sudden and complete vaporization of soft tissues of the victims at Herculaneum and Oplontis, where the flesh was suddenly replaced by the ash, but was insufficient at Pompeii." In the study, temperatures were estimated by studying the (color) transformations in the bones and comparing them to fresh bones (human and horse) put in an oven under different temperatures. Since they didn't take into account the buffering effect of the soft tissues, the temperatures are being underestimated. In any case, it is unlikely that while the bones are affected by the heat, the flesh and the clothes are not visibly altered. And how to explain that even at Oplontis casts are supposed to have been made, for example the "Lady from Oplontis" (see photo below)?. [R 4]
  3. I just want to explain here that "ash" is not used in its common meaning, but it only refers to the size of the volcanic material (and not their chemical composition), meaning that they are smaller than 2 mm (0.079 inch).
  4. I have not found an explanation of how the ash is hardened. All the time before and during the hardening process, the bodies and clothes are not much deformed by the pressure of the layers of ashes above them. This should at least be expected for soft tissues like noses, ears, breasts. As for the weight of the top layer: according to 5) the top layer consist of gray pumice with a density of 1.1 g/cm3 (69 lb/ft3). A layer of 2 meters would exert a pressure of 2200 kg/m².
  5. I have not found an explanation for this process. As far as I know from my studies in soil science, organic matter cannot be decomposed by microorganisms alone, and need the help of either fungi or soil animals and soil fauna. They all would have a hard time entering through the hardened ash, and would leave pores. Furthermore, some material cannot be decomposed fully and becomes humus. This humus can eventually leak further in the soil because of acids exhumed by plant roots, but this takes a lot of time. While the organic matter decomposes the hardened ash takes over the weight of the rest of the ash layer.
  6. Obviously this would slow down the work enormously. Does that correspond to the speed of the excavations? On the other hand, if the ash layer is so strong, being careful is not really necessary. But what should be noticed is not a cavity, but a hard layer containing one.
  7. This would often be impossible depending on the entrance of the cavity.
  8. For the many casts that are made from persons sitting, the top of the head must have been the first part of the cavity that has been found. The flesh around the skull is extremely thin, as you can feel when you touch your head. Filling the entire cavity would take a long time if it is at all possible. because of the capillary forces. Perhaps this is why during the time of Fiorelli they thought it was necessary to remove the bones.

  9. Nobody has described how the hardened ash is removed from the cast. This would not be an easy task. If it can withstand a pressure of 2200 kg/m² with only air inside, how strong would it be when the inside is filled with hardened plaster? Seneca:I don’t see them do this with for example the ear of a horse or the finger of a child without breaking it off. On the pictures of the case of the horse from 2018 we see that the hardened ash is supposed to have been removed on site. This seems pretty stupid after more than 150 years of experience. How are they going to transport it now? If the ear hits something it breaks of. It would be much better to transport it while it is still protected by this super strong ash.
  10. Archaeologist Dr. Estelle Lazer wrote in her 2009 book “Resurrection Pompeii”:“there do appear to be stylistic differences between casts produced in different periods.” And “One could speculate that the simplified features of the twentieth-century casts resulted from the influence of contemporary art, whilst the nineteenth-century restorations tended to be more naturalistic, which in turn was a reflection of the art of that period.” She thought this was all because of the restoration phase where as noted earlier, holes resulting from air bubbles in the plaster had to be restored. She also noted that the restorers traditionally had a background in sculpture and other arts. She fails to notice that restoring a plaster cast so that it resembles a statue is just as difficult as making an entire sculpture out of plaster. [R 4]

above:Lady from Oplontis, the only cast in epoxy resin


In 1763 archeologists claimed to have found a skeleton in Pompeii holding a lance, surrounded by armor. [R 7][R 8] This was near the so-called Herculaneum gate. It was assumed this was a guard who died while continuing his duty. This discovery had inspired many writers and painters over the years. [R 7] Fiorelli had used this image himself as inspiration when he organized an armed cell of nationalistic custodians, meeting in secret in the temples of Pompeii in 1848. [R 8] He must have known the casts of Pompeii and all the stories that could be woven around them could be used to unite the Italians behind their supposedly common ancestry. It was once again a crucial time, in 1863 when the final stage of the “Risorgimento” brought the new kingdom in direct conflict with the Vatican. Since the city of Rome was not yet part of the new kingdom, it wasn’t possible to fake any discoveries there and Pompeii, being already famous worldwide was an ideal replacement. Forelli also benefited personally: “So dramatic were the results of the first castings that the technique not only brought the excavator instant fame, but it stablished him as one of the world’s foremost archaeologists.” [R 9]

Further “investigations”

In 1994 for the first time X-ray and CT scans were made by a team in Sydney. The cast was the first and only body form to be cast in epoxy resin, "the lady from Oplontis" in 1984. This revealed information about the bones and the teeth (that could as easily have been gotten by bones and teeth without casts).
Dr Estelle Lazer (who took part in the 1994 investigation) and Associate Professor Kathryn Welch began the “Pompeii Cast Project” with a Classics and Ancient History faculty grant from the University of Sydney. In partnership with Lion Television and the BBC, a 16 slice CT scanner was bought onto the archaeological site to analyse 16 plaster casts.
A number of the casts, in particular those that were made in the 19th and 20th centuries, did not contain full skeletons, and one cast, the dog, contained no skeletal elements at all. In 2017, the University of Sydney and Pompeii Archaeological Park entered into a Memorandum of Understanding and the team ventured again into the field. This time with the support and assistance of Roberto Canigliula, a representative of Philips (Italy), and film documentary colleagues, including Elena Mortelliti, an additional five casts were selected to be analysed at the Casa di Cura Maria Rosaria hospital in modern Pompei.

Much of the project has been supported by a TV documentary jointly produced by the BBC, Smithsonian and the Franco-German Arte network, and another for Channel 5 in the UK. In April 2019 they are working on a third documentary for National Geographic, which involves the X-ray of 13 casts found in the so-called Garden of the Fugitives at Pompeii. In 2019 the team leader, Australian archaeologist Dr Estelle Lazer, (who is also an archeological tour leader) told in an interview[M 5] :

"It has become apparent that there was as much art as science in the manufacture of the casts of the victims. We have discovered that in a number of cases, considerable numbers of bones were removed prior to casting and reinforcing rods and staples made of iron were inserted to strengthen the casts. In the case of the dog, which was found in the so-called house of Orpheus in 1874, all the bones were removed prior to casting and much metal was introduced. Examination of the plaster tells us that it was constructed out of six or seven different pieces." 

Seneca:See how clever she is fooling us? She pretends to be exposing earlier casts as “as much art as science”, a big accusation. By doing this she is pretending that later archaeologists are being more honest. She claims that in Fiorelli's time they did some sort of fabrication because they removed the bones and introduced metal. But the bones are not essential to the casting process and Fiorelli did mention removing the bones in his journal, so what is so surprising?[R 6] What she doesn’t question is how it was even possible to remove all the bones through a small hole, for example the top of the head. And while she is telling that the dog is constructed out of six or seven pieces, she is still maintaining the idea that it resulted from casting, which makes it quite confusing.

See also


Other research


Other mainstream