For a movie that’s basically an Irwin Allen-style disaster epic, updated with better special effects rendered in 3D, the filmmakers behind Pompeii are going to some remarkable lengths to give their fictionalization of the historic environmental cataclysm real-world verisimilitude.

In a study published February 4 on Nature Conversation, researchers argued that a massive volcanic eruption a la Pompeii may be the reason that a region in Northern China has become well-known for being rich in animal fossils. Specifically, lava flows likely pushed the considerable variety of mammals and reptiles together for burial, and then preserved them exceptionally well.

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In the movie Pompeii, a slave named Milo (Kit Harington) becomes the people’s champion when a Roman Senator (Kiefer Sutherland) agrees to bankroll renovations to the eponymous city in exchange for the hand of Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of one of its noblemen (Jared Harris). While most of the film’s depiction of the eruption of Pompeii unfolds in its second half, director Paul W.S. Anderson skillfully evokes the history of such events by casting the Game of Thrones star as his leading man, since he’s well-known for maintaining a single, frozen expression on his face.

A report about the study on Ars Technica quotes Leicester University’s Sarah Gabbot, who observes that studying the environment around the fossils themselves helps provide information about the time and circumstances of the animal’s demise. “It places the fossils within the context of their habitat and it allows us to determine what filters and biases may have played a part,” she said.

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This is especially interesting, and relevant to Pompeii, since Anderson’s movies are regularly used as an example for Hollywood of what not to do. If the site can provide a sort of context for the environment, and the lives of the animals, perhaps the film’s secrets can provide a case study for future filmmakers trying to turn real-life disasters into populist entertainment.

That said, one of the researchers who worked on the study, Nanjing University’s Baoyu Jiang, argued that if fossils don’t separate bone joints, it means that the animals must have been native to the wetlands and lakes that were common to the region, and consequently the Pompeii-like event did not in fact push them towards other animal remains found. Gabbott, however, disagreed.

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Nevertheless the site remains one of the most important and revealing locations for both geological and anthropological studies in the world. But without definitive proof of how these disparate animals came to arrive in the same place, that unfortunately means that audiences may never know how and where Anderson’s four screenwriters took ideas from Gladiator, Titanic and Volcano, and stitched them together into a melodramatic, eye-popping whole.

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