Archaeologists excavating a previously untouched portion of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii have come across a remarkable discovery: dated graffiti that appears to have been made just prior to the city's destruction.

The charcoal inscription, which references someone overindulging in food, is dated 16 days before the "calends" of November in the old Roman calendar style — or Oct. 17. While there's no year to go along with the graffiti, archaeologists believe both the nature of the scrawl and the renovations in the home where it was discovered all line up with 79 A.D.

Massimo Osanna, (right) director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, points out the location of the recently-discovered graffiti. Italian Minister of Culture Alberto Bonisoli is featured left. Massimo Osanna, (right) director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, points out the location of the recently discovered graffiti with Italian Minister of Culture Alberto Bonisoli. (Photo: Courtesy of Archaeological Park of Pompeii)

"The inscription appears in a room of the house which was undergoing refurbishment, while the rest of the rooms had already been completed; works must therefore have been ongoing at the time of the eruption," the team wrote in a statement. "Furthermore, since it was done in fragile and evanescent charcoal, which could not have been able to last long, it is highly probable that it can be dated to the October of AD 79."

They believe that one week later, on Oct. 24, Mount Vesuvius erupted — entombing the city in ash and mud and claiming the lives of an estimated 2,000 citizens.

Dating destruction

A painting of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius as depicted by the artist Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes in 1813. A painting of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius as depicted by the artist Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes in 1813. (Photo: Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, 1813)

In the intervening 1,939 years since Pompeii's destruction, the only solid eyewitness evidence to have survived came from the Roman author Pliny the Younger. In a letter written to the historian Tacitus some 25 years after the event had happened, Pliny described the nightmarish scene he observed while standing on a bay opposite Pompeii. He wrote:

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.

Pliny's recollection that the eruption occurred on Aug. 24 was long held as historical canon for centuries. It wasn't until archaeologists began meticulously removing the layers of ash and mud that had preserved Pompeii that they started to suspect otherwise. Hints pointing to a later date included carbonized remains of autumnal crops such as chestnuts, walnuts, pomegranates, and olives, as well the discovery of heating braziers indoors rather than in courtyards for summer functions.

Perhaps most telling of all, plaster casts of Roman citizens who perished in the pyroclastic blast that swept the city showed evidence of heavy wool clothing more appropriate for fall than late summer. The discovery of the graffiti only further bolsters the October suspicions.

"Today, with much humility, perhaps we will rewrite the history books because we date the eruption to the second half of October," Italy's Minister of Culture Alberto Bonisoli told reporters.

More discoveries to come

A mosaic of a serpent uncovered at "Regio V" in Pompeii. A mosaic of a serpent uncovered at 'Regio V' in Pompeii. (Photo: Courtesy of Archaeological Park of Pompeii)

The new section of Pompeii currently undergoing excavation has given archaeologists's plenty of surprises over the last several months. Called "Regio V," the site has yielded magnificent frescoes, preserved remnants of pubs, shops, and former gardens, and even a the remains of a man seemingly crushed by a giant boulder.

Earlier this month, researchers found a 16-by-12-foot shrine room containing an altar, a garden, and a small pool. The Italian media dubbed it "the Enchanted Garden," and based on the stunning artwork uncovered of serpents, peacocks, and other natural scenes, it's easy to see why.

Massimo Osanna, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, points out the beauty of a recently-discovered fresco. Osanna points out the stunning beauty of a recently discovered fresco. (Photo: Courtesy of Archaeological Park of Pompeii)

"Every house had a lararium of some kind,” Ingrid Rowland, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of “From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town," told The New York Times. "But only the wealthiest people could have afforded a lararium inside a special chamber with a raised pool and sumptuous decorations."

With nearly one-third of the city still buried under ash and mud, Pompeii will likely continue to amaze with new discoveries about Roman life for generations to come.

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

Ancient graffiti reveals the real date of Pompeii's destruction
The debate over whether the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii occurred in August or October may finally be settled.