The bodies of Vesuvius' victims weren't well-preserved due to extreme heat

The temperature was above 550 degrees Celsius.
Nergis Firtina
Villa dei Misteri, Pompeii, Italy.
Villa dei Misteri, Pompeii, Italy.


The reason why the bodies of those who died in Herculaneum due to Mount Vesuvius' eruption were not adequately preserved has been uncovered by a team of geologists from the University of Roma Tre.

The team outlines how they discovered proof that a pyroclastic current struck Herculaneum immediately after Vesuvius blew, effectively vaporizing the inhabitants in their research published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Heat was above 550°C

According to earlier studies, when a volcano erupts, a mass of scorching gases and particles may occasionally rush down the mountain and strike locations in the immediate area.

It has been discovered that the temperatures of these flows are above 550 degrees Celsius (1022 degrees Fahrenheit). After examining an eruption in Martinique back in 1902, proof of such an event was discovered, as reported by Phys.

Around 30,000 individuals were killed in that eruption. The research team has discovered evidence of such a flow hitting the town of Herculaneum during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which resulted in the incineration of individuals residing there.

Due to the distance between Pompeii and the surrounding area, its residents were spared. They were instead buried alive in ash.

The bodies of Vesuvius' victims weren't well-preserved due to extreme heat
Eruption victim of Vesuvius in Pompeii.

The geologists' latest endeavor involved gathering carbonized wood samples from Herculaneum locations and analyzing them in their lab. As a result, they discovered that individuals had signs of having been exposed to scorching gas for a brief period. They propose that this is a consequence of exposure to a diluted pyroclastic density stream (PDC).

The reason preserved bodies, like those at Pompeii, were not discovered in Herculaneum is explained by the researchers' hypothesis that such a blast of gas and particles would reduce a human victim to a tiny pile of burned bones and ash.

At the Collegium Augustalium, they did discover some of one victim's fragmentary organ remains— a skull with a vitrified brain inside. The discovery implied that the brain had been rapidly cooled after being burned at a high temperature, converting it into glass.

Study abstract:

Diluted pyroclastic density currents are capable to cause huge devastation and mortality around volcanoes, and temperature is a crucial parameter in assessing their lethal power. Reflectance analysis on carbonized wood from ancient Herculaneum allowed a new reconstruction of the thermal events that affected buildings and humans during the 79CE Vesuvius eruption. Here we show that the first PDC entered the town was a short-lived, ash cloud surge, with temperatures of 555–495 °C, capable of causing instant death of people, while leaving only a few decimeters of ash on ground, which we interpret as detached from high concentration currents. The subsequent pyroclastic currents that progressively buried the town were mostly higher concentration PDCs at lower temperatures, between 465 and 390 and 350–315 °C. Charcoal proved to be the only proxy capable of recording multiple, ephemeral extreme thermal events, thus revealing for the first time the real thermal impact of the 79CE eruption. The lethal impact documented for diluted PDC produced during ancient and recent volcanic eruptions suggests that such hazard deserves greater consideration at Vesuvius and elsewhere, especially the underestimated hazard associated with hot detached ash cloud surges, which, though short lived, may expose buildings to severe heat damages and people to death.

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