10 of History's Happiest Accidents

In the 1840s, Giuseppi Forelli, director of excavations, poured liquid plaster into the spaces left by the corpses buried in the ash bank at Pompeii. This allowed visitors to see what the victims really looked like and wore in their final moments. y Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images)

About 2.5 million people visit the ruins of Pompeii, Italy, each year, fascinated by the lives of a first century people so similar to our own. Excavators have uncovered streets, homes, public baths and detailed frescoes as well as jewelry and household objects from this city buried by a volcano, which preserved everything so well. But the entire site was discovered by accident – twice.

Back in 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted, covering the city of Pompeii in ash and killing thousands of people [source: Stewart]. During the 1590s, an Italian architect named Domenico Fontana was in charge of building a canal to divert water from the Sarno River to a count's villa. His workers found some inscriptions relating to decurio pompeis, which Fontana took to refer to the Roman general Pompey rather than the city and so covered it up and kept on going [source: Ozgenel].

In 1710, a peasant came across some marble pieces while digging a well and sold them to a prince. The prince ordered excavations in the area for more artifacts. In 1738, the nearby town of Herculaneum – also a victim of Mount Vesuvius – was excavated by workers on behalf of King Charles III who had heard about the prince's diggings. But the rock above Herculaneum was hard, which made excavation difficult. In 1748, project leader Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre learned that artifacts had also been found near the Sarno canal and started digging in what we now know was ancient Pompeii. This city was buried at a shallower level than Herculaneum, which made excavation much easier [sources: Ozgenel, Turismo Pompeii].

Today, tourists visit both sites in order to see the priceless ruins and artifacts.