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Here Lies the Skull of Pliny the Elder, Maybe


In 2017, after Mr. Cionci chronicled the mystery in the Turin-based daily La Stampa, Project Pliny was launched. DNA sequencing and an analysis of cranial shape and sutures suggested that the skull fit the Elder’s general profile. Still, Luciano Fattore, an anthropologist and occasional lecturer at University of Naples “L’Orientale,” warned that the older the individual, the less reliable the age range. “On average, however, the data is compatible with the possibility that the skull was Pliny’s,” he said. “This is a process of clues, with very strong evidences.”

Mr. Cionci’s team was buoyed when examination of isotopes in the tooth enamel in the jawbone revealed that the owner could have grown up in Northern Italy, Pliny’s birthplace. Then came the deflating news that the jaw likely came from a man of North African ancestry who had died in his thirties.

Mr. Cionci speculates that Matrone played mix-and-match with the bones, borrowing the jaw from a skeleton of a slave who lived on Pliny’s estate and served as his bodyguard. A footnote in “The Shadow of Vesuvius” refers to an ancient rumor that Pliny was killed by a slave “whom he urged to hasten his death in the agonizing heat.” Mr. Cionci’s hypothesis raises the tantalizing possibility the unmatched set of bones is an amalgam of murderer and murdered.

Unsurprisingly, some prominent scholars are deeply skeptical of Project Pliny’s conclusions. Dr. Dunn, who has closely followed the developments, wondered why, if Pliny the Elder’s body had been found in a sleeping posture, his body had not been entombed.

“If this is the skull of Pliny the Elder, I’d be absolutely flabbergasted,” she said. “The science does not appear to have established that connection, and we cannot know for certain that the skull was found as described or rule out the possibility that it was positioned opportunistically to lend credence to the theory that it was his. It is a pity we can’t recreate the moment of its discovery.”

She quoted an idiom that Pliny coined in a recipe for a kind of antidote to poison: addito salis grano — with a grain of salt. “We’ve appropriated the phrase to mean read or take with caution,” she said.

In an email, Francesco Sirano, director of the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum, and who was not involved in Project Pliny, praised the effort for “bringing back within a solid scientific basis a debate closed too hastily” in the early 1900s. “The group of researchers is trying to derive the maximum of the results from the few archaeological and anthropological remains, also thanks to the help of new technologies.”

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