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Did this man die doing what he loved? A photo of a preserved body from Pompeii during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE makes it look like the volcano victim was masturbating at the time of his death. The most popular tweet about the Pompeii Masturbator has been retweeted 20,000 times, and the image is also going viral on Reddit and 4chan. Everyone’s got jokes, but the truth isn’t as salacious as people assume.
Masturbating man, Pompeii, 79 CE pic.twitter.com/EPA2b17Vmd— Persian Rose (@PersianRose1) July 2, 2017
The photo, by Prof. Massimo Ossana, first appeared June 9 on the Pompeii Archaeological Park Instagram account. It’s not clear how it made the jump to Twitter, but once it was it there, people had all kinds of amusing ways to describe what seemed to have happened to this poor, dead, ancient fellow. All of them assumed he was having a wank when Vesuvius claimed him.
He held on till the very end......great man— EfeTobore (@tobasamuels) July 2, 2017
He died holding his loved ones.— Persian Rose (@PersianRose1) July 2, 2017
*When she wanna evacuate but you tryna ejaculate*— Yuki (@ShadeYuki) July 2, 2017
One last one for Harambe!— Persian Rose (@PersianRose1) July 2, 2017
Did the Pompeii Masturbator really “die hard,” though? It’s very unlikely. Although there’s some debate about precisely how the volcano killed the citizens of Pompeii, both of the leading theories make it unlikely a man would be preserved in the act of jerking off. In one version, the victims asphyxiated on the gases from the volcano, dying after just a few breaths.
In another more recent hypothesis, they were killed by thermal shock, their organs essentially cooked by deep, fourth-degree burns.
Many of the bodies were frozen in the “pugilistic pose,” with their hands up in seeming self-defense. Initially, this was thought to be a reaction to suffocation, but more recent theories suggest the pose was caused by the extreme heat.
Volcanologist Pier Paolo Petrone has been studying the Vesuvius victims for 25 years. He’s one of the authors of a 2010 study of the bodies, published in PloS One, that advanced the thermal shock explanation, and his research may help explain the way the “masturbator” is posed.
“There is no way to demonstrate any ‘masturbating man,’ and it is out of place to discuss such an affirmation (I hope a joke, however bad) of some young time waster,” Dr. Petrone told the Daily Dot via email.
“The individual in the photo is an adult man, killed by the hot pyroclastic surge (hot gas and ash cloud which killed most of the population living around Mount Vesuvius), with both arms and legs flexed due to the heat.”
Petrone went on to explain that “most of the human victims found in Pompeii often show ‘strange’ position of arms and legs, due to the contraction of limbs as a consequence of the heat effect on their bodies after death occurred.”
Even if the dead man had been whacking it when the fourth wave of the eruption devastated Pompeii, temperatures of more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit would have contracted and bent his limbs. His hands may have ended up in a masturbatory pose, but that almost certainly happened post-mortem, not at the time of death.
But don’t let science get in the way of a good jerk-off joke. The Pompeii Masturbator image is extremely meme-able, and its comedic potential on the web has only begun to be exploited.
Jay Hathaway is a former senior writer who specialized in internet memes and weird online culture. He previously served as the Daily Dot’s news editor, was a staff writer at Gawker, and edited the classic websites Urlesque and Download Squad. His work has also appeared on nymag.com, suicidegirls.com, and the Morning News.