Pliny the Elder’s skull — or more accurately, his alleged skull — reposes in ghoulish splendor at the Museo Storico Nazionale Dell’Arte Sanitaria in Rome, a treasure trove of medical curiosities. The cranium has ruminated for decades in a display case, amid pathological and anatomical anomalies such as malformed fetuses and pickled liver stones. Scholars have long debated whether the relic once housed the brain of Pliny, the renowned admiral and author of a vast encyclopedia of Roman knowledge who died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
Over the last few years a pool of Italian biologists, anthropologists and geochemists conducted a series of forensic tests on the skull and accompanying lower mandible, which were unearthed 120 years ago on a shore not far from Pompeii. On Jan. 23 the scientists presented their findings at a conference in the museum. The skull, they concluded, squared with what was known about Pliny at his death, but the jawbone belonged to someone else.
Mary Beard, the Cambridge University classicist and reigning authority on Roman history, dismissed the finding out of hand. “I am 90 percent certain that this is fake news,” she wrote in an email. Andrea Cionci, point man for the undertaking, conceded some ambiguity but remained firm.
“It is very likely that the skull is Pliny, but we cannot have 100 percent security,” he said. “We have many coincidences in favor, and no contrary data.”
Mr. Cionci is an historian best known for his biography of Evan Gorga, the lyric tenor who sang the role of Rodolfo in the world premier of Giacomo Puccini’s “La bohème” in 1896. H.L. Mencken described the music of Puccini as “silver macaroni, exquisitely tangled,” and like many Italian tales, the facts in the case of Pliny are as pliable as tubes of boiled pasta. To quote Pliny: “In these matters, the only certainty is that nothing is certain.”
According to Mr. Cionci, the idea for Project Pliny came from a book — “Indagine sulla Scomparsa di un Ammiraglio,” or “Inquiry On The Death of An Admiral” — written by military historian Flavio Russo and originally published by the Italian Navy in 2004. Mr. Russo, a Pliny fanboy, calls the commander’s actions after the eruption “the oldest natural disaster relief operation.”
Gaius Plinius Secundus, born around 23 A.D., was a polymath who believed that you could cure a cold by kissing the hairy muzzle of a mouse, that a pregnant woman who eats salty food will give birth to a child without fingernails and that “there is no greater cause for the destruction of morals and rise of luxury than shellfish.” Whatever is known about his death comes down to us from a pair of Latin letters by his nephew, Pliny the Younger; these constitute the sole surviving eyewitness account of the eruption.
It was Pliny the Elder’s fearsome intellectual curiosity that literally got him in hot water. He was staying at a villa in Misenum (modern Miseno), two dozen miles from the volcano, when his sister noticed a soaring, high-spreading cloud in the distance. She alerted him to this plume of smoke, which her son, 17-year-old Pliny the Younger, also observed.
“Having seen the cloud, Pliny the Elder decided he wanted to get closer to it to investigate,” said Daisy Dunn, a classicist whose 2019 biography “The Shadow of Vesuvius” is the definitive guide to Plinydom. “He was, after all, author of a 37-volume book of natural history.”
The Elder was also admiral of the emperor Titus’s fleet, so he had a ship fitted out and was preparing to leave to sail closer to the cloud when he received a written message from a woman named Rectina. “She was asking him for help as she lived somewhere beneath Vesuvius and could not escape,” Dr. Dunn said. “So, in that moment Pliny the Elder changed his plan.” What began as a scientific pursuit turned into a rescue mission.
Admiral Pliny launched the other ships of the fleet and set out across the Bay of Naples. It was a perilous voyage, through a soft fall of ash and pumice, and at one point, with the sea growing wilder, a helmsman recommended they turn back. In Pliny the Younger’s account, it was then that his uncle uttered the immortal words “Fortune favors the brave.” The Elder put in where he could, at Stabiae, just south of Pompeii, and resolved to investigate. He died as a result of his commitment to field research, presumably asphyxiated by volcanic fumes. He was 56.
The story jumps ahead to 1900, when, during a burst of activity to unearth ruins preserved by the layers of ash, 73 skeletons were dug up near the beach at what was once Stabiae. One body bore gold bracelets with designs of vipers, a gold triple-strand necklace and a parazonium, a triangular dagger sheathed in seashells, with an ivory hilt. The skeleton was supine, its skull rested on a pillar. The landowner, Gennaro Matrone, had a hunch that these were the remains of Pliny the Elder (the Younger wrote of his uncle’s body lying as if asleep on the day after the eruption), but his theory was laughed off in the press.
“Archaeologists argued that a Roman admiral would never have appeared so heavily bejeweled, like a cabaret dancer,” Mr. Russo said. His own research indicated that it was customary for senior naval officers to wear such adornments.
Discouraged, Mr. Matrone sold off the jewels and reburied most of the bones, keeping just the dagger, the skull and the lower mandible, Mr. Russo said. Some 70 years ago, the artifacts were donated to the Museo di Storia dell’Arte Sanitaria. Curators exhibited the objects — which conformed to those in a photo taken by Matrone — and hastily cataloged the cranium as “Pliny the Elder’s skull.” The claim on the tag was later hedged to read: “Skull from the excavations of Pompeii and attributed to Pliny.”
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.”
For his part, Mr. Cionci observed that new discoveries in history and science are often rejected by the establishment but over time become widely accepted. Then again, the modern medical community still has not come around to Pliny’s treatment for ulcers, which includes salt and honey, butter, smashed snails and the ashes of a cremated dog’s head.