Studies reveal gruesome last moments of Pompeii volcano’s victims

Skeletons in one of the boat houses in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum MARTYN ET AL; ANTIQUITY

Most of the Roman occupants of Herculaneum were doomed the moment Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 C.E. Within hours, a cloud of hot volcanic ash swept down the side of the famous Italian volcano, raced over the countryside, and smothered the town, along with nearby Pompeii. Hundreds died. Two new studies reveal, in gruesome detail, what happened to their bodies when the hot ash arrived.
Excavations of Herculaneum in the 1980s and ’90s uncovered the remains of more than 300 people killed by the volcano, mostly in a dozen stone structures next to the town’s beach where boats were stored. Perhaps, says biological anthropologist Tim Thompson at Teesside University, people gathered near these vaults in the ultimately futile hope they could launch boats into the Bay of Naples and escape.
The individuals in the boat houses died relatively quickly: The volcanic ash blocked the entrance to each structure, and the temperature of the air within probably rose to about 400°C—even hotter than a wood-fired oven.
At nearby Pompeii, archaeologists have found bodies preserved as eerie 3D casts that in some cases even reveal people’s final facial expressions. But at Herculaneum, just skeletons remain. Because of this, researchers had thought that immediately after death, the hot ash caused body fluids and tissue to vaporize rapidly, exposing the skeleton to direct burning.
But one new study contradicts that idea. Thompson and his colleagues analyzed rib samples from more than 150 skeletons in the Herculaneum boat houses. Surprisingly, the bones still contained high levels of collagen, a protein that breaks down relatively readily when bones are burned. So it was unlikely that these bones experienced much or even any burning. “That forced us to have another think, to re-evaluate how these individuals died,” Thompson says.
He and colleagues speculate that the people trapped inside the boat houses did indeed die quickly, either from heat exposure or suffocation. Afterward, their bodies began to cook. Skin and muscles swelled, driving moisture from soft tissue inward toward the bone. As the team argues today in Antiquity, this would have baked the skeleton without burning it.

It may seem that making such a distinction is of only ghoulish interest, but Thompson says there is real value in understanding the ways in which bodies respond to heat. Doing so could, for instance, provide new information for forensic scientists attempting to identify bodies in the aftermath of a modern volcanic disaster.


By: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter

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