Mt. Vesuvius erupted in March 1944.

Mt. Vesuvius erupted in March 1944. (credit: American B-25 Mitchell Bombers Flying Past Vesuvius, March 17–21, 1944, Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print, 4 7/16 x 5 13/16 in (11.3 x 14.7 cm). Archive of Raymond D. Yusi, Army Corps of Engineers)

Every now and again, real-life archaeology sounds a little like an Indiana Jones movie. Allied bombers dropped 165 bombs on the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, and at least seven of them may still lie buried and unexploded amid the ruins. The bombs, scattered over 22 hectares of the site that haven’t been surveyed or excavated, don’t pose a danger to tourists, but they’re a challenge for future excavations.

Bombing the ruins

The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius entombed the city of Pompeii in ash in 79 CE. Fire rained down on the ruined city again in August 1943, when US and British bombers began pounding German encampments and supply lines in southern Italy. The US 5th Army had launched Operation Avalanche, a campaign to seize the nearby port of Naples, and the 12th Air Force Bomber Command dropped ordnance on anything that could support Nazi forces in the area.

Naples was the second-most heavily bombed city in Italy. In 1943, the city weathered 181 bombing raids—nine of which struck the ruins of Pompeii. “Those were the months in which the anti-aircraft alarm sounded in Naples every day,” reported Il Fatto Quotidiano. Between 20,000 and 25,000 people died. In the middle of it all, Archaeological Superintendent Amedeo Maiuri and his colleagues moved several statues and artifacts from Pompeii underground for safekeeping.

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