- New research published in two scientific journals sheds light on the final moments of Mount Vesuvius’ famous victims.
- The volcano erupted in 79 A.D., shrouding Herculaneum, Pompeii, and other nearby towns in a blanket of boiling gas and ash.
- One of the papers suggests the brains of some victims were turned to glass, while another suggests some of the volcano’s victims were baked like buns in an oven.
On August 24, 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius unleashed fire and fury on residents of nearby Herculaneum and Pompeii. Pyroclastic surges are massive flows of gas and rock similar to those that destroyed New Zealand’s White Island last December, killing 2o. In the case of Vesuvius, the pyroclastic clouds were well documented by those in the region.
It was centuries before the bodies of the dead were unearthed, and still today, researchers are working to puzzle together exactly how and when they might have died. Two new studies, both published January 23 in the New England Journal of Medicine and the journal Antiquity, respectively, describe in horrific detail the last moments of some of Herculaneum and Pompeii’s residents.
Brain on Fire
In one instance, shards of a glassy black material were extracted from a victim’s cranial cavity, the NEJM article reports. The victim, who drew his last breath inside the city’s Collegium Augustalium as a pyroclastic surge closed in on him, was unearthed by archaeologists in the 1960s.
A team of researchers, led by paleobiologist Pier Paolo Petrone of the University Federico II of Naples, tested the jagged pieces of glass and found evidence of proteins and fatty acids found in the brain and hair. Scientists believe the brain matter formed through a process called vitrification. It’s not pretty: soft tissue like brain matter and fat becomes superheated in the pyroclastic surge, liquifies, and then quickly cools into glass.
Nearby scraps of burned wood suggest temperatures could have reached as high as 998 degrees Fahrenheit—certainly hot enough to vitrify soft tissue, National Geographic reports. The researchers report they didn’t find animal or plant material nearby, which could have supplied the protein and fatty acids. But some scientists have argued it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly what the glassy substance is.
Shake and Bake
Researchers have long believed that, in most cases, victims’ bones, blood, and brains had been overwhelmed and instantly vaporized by a super-heated pyroclastic cloud. The new research published in Antiquity describes a horrifying alternative.
Crowds of people took shelter from the falling ash in 12 cobblestone boathouses spread across the beaches of Herculaneum. The 340 victims who cowered inside the structures, called fornici, suffocated and then were slowly roasted at lower temperatures instead of quickly succumbing to the boiling, pyroclastic surges that pummeled the town.
Researchers collected samples of collagen from the rib bones of 152 people found in six of the boathouses. Ultimately, the tests revealed the victims were exposed to temperatures of about 500 degrees Fahrenheit—much lower than the maximum temperatures reached by pyroclastic flows. The soft bodies of the victims, piled deep into the fornici, would have dampened the impacts of the heat.
“It’s almost like a little oven, so it distributes heat differently,” applied biological anthropologist Tim Thompson of Teesside University in England told the New York Times. He believes many died by suffocation instead of from the stifling heat. Then their bodies were baked and preserved.
Still, some researchers argue more work needs to be done before confirming the victims' exact cause of death.
“The weak point of [Thompson’s] is that they did not sufficiently consider the whole set of taphonomic, bioanthropological, and forensic evidence detected on the victims’ corpses and bones,” Petrone told the New York Times. His 2018 research into Vesuvius’ boathouse victims supports the theory that the victims were vaporized by the extreme heat.
It’s gruesome work, but someone has to do it. By studying the aftermath of ancient volcanic eruptions, scientists can work to better prepare communities for hazards—such as pyroclastic surges—associated with future eruptions. There are, on average, anywhere between 40 to 60 volcanic eruptions each year. Learning how they behave, and how they kill, could potentially prevent future tragedies.
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