Tag Archives: Vesuvius

Credit: PLOS One.

Ancient Vesuvius eruption was so intense it cracked Roman skulls and boiled Roman brains

Credit: PLOS One.

Credit: PLOS One.

When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it destroyed the flourishing Roman city of Pompeii and other surrounding towns, killing thousands. Death came in a number of different ways, from fatal fractures induced by shaken ruble and toppled buildings to asphyxiation from the noxious gases released by the volcano. And according to a new paper, some victims met the fury of Vesuvius first hand, becoming engulfed by flows of hot ash and lava fragments. The heat was so intense that the thermal shock was enough to crack open the victims’ skulls and boil their brains, Italian researchers claim.

Not forgotten

A few days before the volcano erupted in all its might, Vesuvius caused a series of earthquakes that toppled structures, claiming the first victims. Recognizing the signs of impending doom, many inhabitants from Pompeii and the smaller settlements Herculaneum, Stabiae, and Oplontis, wisely fled the incoming onslaught. Not all of them, however — by some estimates, 2,000 people died by the time Vesuvius spewed its last plumes.

The victims stayed buried beneath pumice and ash, all but forgotten for nearly 1,500 years. That all changed in 1738 when archaeologists rediscovered Pompeii, recognizing that the soft ashes on the site were actually cavities left from the dead. Today, the images of Pompeii’s contrived bodies of men, women, and children are famous around the world.

But there’s still much we don’t know about their final days, despite many years of research.

The skeletons of a child (left) and adult male (right) from Herculaneum, whose frozen postures suggest they died instantly. Credit: PLOS One.

The skeletons of a child (left) and adult male (right) from Herculaneum, whose frozen postures suggest they died instantly. Credit: PLOS One.

In a new study, Italian archaeologists paint a richer picture of the horrors beckoned by Vesuvius. The researchers at the Federico II University Hospital in Naples analyzed the remains of victims from Herculaneum, which, like Pompeii, was covered in ash and soot. Herculaneum, however, rests near the foot of Vesuvius, much closer to the epicenter of destruction.

Seeking to flee away from danger, around 140 people sought shelter in houseboats at the town’s beach. However, none survived and the victims were covered in an avalanche of ache, which preserved their skeletons still in their final death pose. Following the archaeological’s site discovery in the 1980s, scientists concluded that the victims died by asphyxiation after ash smothered their shelters. But the new analysis suggests that the ancient Herculaneum locals were actually killed by heat.

The team argues that the victims were overrun by pyroclastic flows of hot ash and lava fragments that could be as hot as 300°C (572°F). Red and black residues found on the skulls and other bones contain unusual amounts of iron, a chemical analysis revealed — this may be superboiled blood and other bodily fluids. Also, many of the bones recovered from the site are fractured, which would be expected in a thermal shock event. This may explain why skullcaps belonging to many skeletons showed evidence of “cracking and explosion”. The circular patterns on the skulls also suggest that brain matter was expelled.

“The extraordinarily rare preservation of significant putative evidence of hemoprotein thermal degradation from the eruption victims strongly suggests the rapid vaporization of body fluids and soft tissues of people at death due to exposure to extreme heat,” the authors wrote in the study’s abstract.

Strikingly, the findings suggest that over a hundred people met their end horribly, practically getting boiled alive. But perhaps their finals days were less horrible since death came in an instant, which we can’t say about Vesuvius’ asphyxiated victims.

“These findings highlight the need for thorough evaluation of key bioanthropological and taphonomic evidence during archaeological investigations. This is particularly true for the sites affected by the 79 AD Vesuvius eruption, given the high-risk scenario for three million people living today close to the volcano, even if sheltered within buildings,” the team of Italian archaeologists concluded.

The findings were reported in the journal PLOS One.

X-Ray Technique Reveals Charred Scrolls From Vesuvius Eruption

Using a new X-Ray technique, archaeologists may be able to read the words from the charred, rolled up scrolls that survived the Vesuvius eruption that wiped out the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum nearly 2000 years ago. This could open up a new window to the past, revealing much information about the way the Romans lived and is a spectacular technological achievement in itself.

Charred scrolls from Herculaneum. Credit Salvatore Laporta/Associated Press.

“Hundreds of papyrus rolls, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and belonging to the only library passed on from Antiquity, were discovered 260 years ago at Herculaneum. These carbonized papyri are extremely fragile and are inevitably damaged or destroyed in the process of trying to open them to read their contents. In recent years, new imaging techniques have been developed to read the texts without unwrapping the rolls”, the research writes.

In AD 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted in one of the most catastrophic and infamous eruptions in history, wiping out two thriving Roman cities. The volcano sent fumes up to a height of 33 kilometres (21 mi), ejecting molten rock and pulverized pumice at the rate of 1.5 million tons per second. Pompeii and Herculaneum were completely obliterated. A thousand bodies have been found by archaeologists, but the number of victims is certainly much higher.

Along with the lives and buldings which were claimed, a lot of information was lost as well. Most of the papyri were burned, while others were not burned, but charred beyond recognition. Ironically, even though lava engulfed Pompeii and destroyed pretty much everything from the city, Herculaneum was destroyed by a mix of superhot gases and ash. While this didn’t make much of a difference for the city’s inhabitants, it helped partially preserve some scrolls. When scholars of the 1700s, tried to decipher their secrets, even more damage was caused. But now, a new technique described in the journal Nature gives hope to researchers who have until now been unable to read these delicate scrolls.

The charred remains of the rolled papyrus scroll from Herculaneum. Photograph: E Brun

They want to study the scrolls from a library which includes the works from Greek and Roman authors, such as the lost books of Livy’s history of Rome. Researchers led by Vito Mocella, of the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples, Italy used a laserlike beam of X-rays from the European Synchrotron in Grenoble, France, With this, they were able to pick up slight contrasts between the papyrus fibers and the ancient ink. They tested this technique several times and it worked quite fine, and now the team is working on ways to refine it. While they did figure out some letters and words, it will be quite a while before these works hit the bookshelves.


“At least we know there are techniques able to read inside the papyri, finally,” Dr. Mocella said in an interview. His team is considering several ways to refine the power of their technique. “If the technology is perfected, it will be a real leap forward,” said Richard Janko, a classical scholar at the University of Michigan who has translated some of the few scrolls that can be read.

Scientists believe that the author of the scrolls they studied is the philosopher and poet Philodemus. However, there are some limits to what this technique can do. The papyri are so damaged that some of the writing has actually been distorted beyond the point of recognition, and without actually opening them, you can only read a part of the scroll. So far, researchers have been able to  make up the words for “would fall” and “would say” in one parchment, and some individual letters in another one. It may not seem like much, but it’s a great start.

The remains of Pompeii. Image via Passport Files.

“This pioneering research opens up new prospects not only for the many papyri still unopened, but also for others that have not yet been discovered, perhaps including a second library of Latin papyri at a lower, as yet unexcavated level of the Villa,” the study authors wrote.

Journal Reference: Vito Mocella, Emmanuel Brun, Claudio Ferrero & Daniel Delattre. Revealing letters in rolled Herculaneum papyri by X-ray phase-contrast imaging. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 5895 doi:10.1038/ncomms6895