On a warm afternoon in 79 A.D., a Roman statesman and writer named Gaius Plinius Secundus watched Mount Vesuvius explode. As his fellow Romans fled the eruption—the beginnings of a catastrophic chain of events that would soon leave as many as 16,000 dead—he readied a small fleet of ships to sail straight into the volcano’s path of destruction.
That day, the man better known as Pliny the Elder launched what would become one of history’s first formal rescue missions, risking it all to save some of the doomed citizens on and near the mountain’s fiery flanks. The decision almost certainly cost Pliny his life: By the next day, the great commander had died, likely from asphyxiation or a heart attack, on the shores of the town of Stabiae, where his men were forced to leave him after he collapsed.
What ultimately happened to Pliny’s body, discovered wreathed in pumice the day after his death, has long remained a mystery. But a recent spate of scientific tests suggests a team of Italian researchers may have finally pieced together a critical clue: a skull that could belong to the Roman leader himself, reports Ariel David for Haaretz.