But as Vesuvius began emitting black clouds of ash, and the danger became more obvious, most people fled or sought shelter. So what did they reach for in the hours before the fatal eruption? There are many practical items like lamps and lanterns. Even before nightfall, the cities could have been plunged into darkness ahead of the main eruption which came shortly after midnight. Some people had their keys, clearly hopeful that they would be returning home. Hundreds of refugees from Herculaneum had taken shelter in the vaulted arcades at the beach, perhaps hoping to be rescued, clutching their jewellery and money.
Among them was a young girl found with a charm bracelet, constructed of more than 40 charms from all over the Roman empire. She may have hoped it would bring her good luck. The bracelet would have had “no financial value,” says Paul Roberts, “but is a very poignant object, which must have had sentimental value for its owner.”
People took things that had personal meaning - a doctor was found with his medical kit, which included scalpels, forceps, and a needle. “We can never know if this was to safeguard the tools of his trade, or a valiant attempt to help the wounded,” says Roberts.
One woman was found with bags of jewellery, and gold and silver coins - more wealth than found with any other body. Around her neck was a large necklace, or “body chain”, which she must have been particularly attached to, as it was the only piece of jewellery she was wearing.
Along with more precious items, there was a single battered earring and fragments of an armlet - suggesting that she didn’t have time to carefully choose what she took, but may have simply grabbed or tipped her jewels into a bag as she fled.
The possessions of another young woman, found outside Pompeii’s Nola gate, suggest that superstition and faith played their part as the victims tried desperately to escape from the rising heat and falling pumice. The “Porta Nola” girl carried a silver statuette of the Egyptian goddess Isis-Fortuna, protective silver amulets including one in the shape of a phallus which was thought to protect against the evil eye, and rings containing icons associated with luck. It is impossible to know whether she, or any of the victims, grabbed those objects at the last minute, but she had clearly tried to protect herself from bad fortune….
People in Pompeii and Herculaneum were also found with impractical items, says Paul Roberts. Some had bulky silver pots, which would have made it hard to escape with any speed, but would have been seen as a valuable item that they could trade for food or money.