Pompeii victims likely dead before being cooked, study finds

A new study indicates that many victims from the 79 AD Vesuvius eruption in Pompeii probably died from asphyxiation before being "cooked."
Christopher McFadden
One of the Pompeii victims being analyzed using a portable X-ray fluorescence machine.

Llorenç Alapont et al, 2023 

A recent study of six victims from the 79 AD Vesuvian eruption and the subsequent destruction of the Roman town of Pompeii suggests that their deaths were less violent than previously thought. Using X-ray fluorescence, the team concluded that these individuals most likely died from asphyxiation, not a more violent and traumatic death. The team used the technique to analyze preserved bone and plaster casts of the victims made in the 1800s.

Asphyxiation, not violent death

If true, this would add weight to the idea that most victims recovered from the Pompeii excavation over the past few hundred years appear "peaceful," not suffering from agonizing deaths. That's not to say other victims were likely killed in gruesome and horrible ways.

“This [new technique could] create a protocol to be carried out in more Pompeii casts that were found in different Pompeii areas, but as well should be done in remains around the Vesuvian area like in Herculano [Herculaneum,]” said Gianni Gallello, an archaeologist at the University of Valencia and co-author of the paper, in an email to Gizmodo.

During the eruption, fast-moving pyroclastic flows buried the town below with ash, gas, and lava, killing anyone on its path almost instantaneously. Those lucky few who had taken shelter from the volcano's initial pumice and ash onslaught were likely quickly buried under feet of ash carried by the superheated flows. However, that did not mean they were safe, far from it.

The toxic mix of gases from the flows would have starved any survivors of oxygen, leading to them slowly suffocating to death. By most conservative estimates, this would likely have taken between four and five minutes but would be preceded by unconsciousness before death. This horrible but less violent death, the researchers state, left telltale signatures in their remains that only modern scientific analysis could discover.

“When their bones suffered the effects of the high temperatures caused by the pyroclastic waves and magma currents, the victims had already died, probably from inhaling toxic gasses,” said Llorenç Alapont, an archaeologist at the University of Valencia and the study’s lead author explained.

According to the team, the gas-ash mixture was not extremely high in the area of these victims but would not have been breathable for more than a few minutes. Regardless, the researchers believe that the hot ash laid down by the pyroclastic flows would have had a “thermal impact” on the asphyxiated corpses as they were buried.

Such post-mortem interactions with the high temperatures from the eruption probably contorted the bodies into shapes that can easily be interpreted as the victim suffering an agonizing and traumatic end. The so-called "pugilistic (boxing) poses" of some famous Pompeii casts.

Still a gruesome end

It is hoped that scientists could use portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) analysis to non-invasively probe Roman remains in the future. This could be applied to many other disaster sites of the past, including, most logically, the lesser-known destroyed city of Herculaneum.

You can read the study for yourself in the journal PLOS ONE.

Study abstract:

The casts of Pompeii bear witness to the people who died during the Vesuvius 79 AD eruption. However, studies on the cause of death of these victims have not been conclusive. A previous important step is understanding the post-depositional processes and the impact of the plaster on bones, two issues that have not been previously evaluated. Here, we report on the anthropological and the first chemical data obtained from the study of six casts from the Porta Nola area and one from the Terme Suburbane. A non-invasive chemical analysis by portable X-ray fluorescence was employed for the first time on these casts of Pompeii to determine the elemental composition of the bones and the plaster. Elemental profiles were determined, providing important data that cross-referenced with anthropological and stratigraphic results help reconstruct the perimortem and post-mortem events concerning the history of these individuals. The comparative analyses carried out on the bone casts and other collections from burned bones of the necropolis of Porta Nola in Pompeii and Rome Sepolcreto Ostiense, and buried bones from Valencia (Spain) reveal the extent of high-temperature alteration and post-depositional plaster contamination. These factors make bioarchaeological analyses difficult but still allow us to support asphyxia as the likely cause of death.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board