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Victims found in a fornici hiding from the blast of Mount Vesuvius     Source: Rachelle Martyn et al, Antiquity

Hiding From Mount Vesuvius Prolonged Victims' Deaths

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Herculaneum, which was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius is one of the best-preserved of all Ancient Roman settlements. Recent advances in science now allow researchers to better understand the way that people died during the cataclysm that destroyed this city - and some died a lot slower than was thought. This latest study has shown that not all the victims were vaporized by the heat of the plasma flow because they had sought shelter from the eruption.

According to the study published today in Antiquity, ‘Recent developments in bioarchaeological analysis have catalyzed debate over the nature and manner of the inhabitants’ deaths’ in Herculaneum in 79 AD.  An Anglo-Italian multidisciplinary research team decided to use the latest technology to examine some skeletons in order to determine their cause of death.  They used 152 ribs from skeletons that were found in stone boathouses known as formici during excavations at Herculaneum in the 1980s and 1990s.

The fornici of Herculaneum. (Rachelle Martyn et al, Antiquity)

The fornici of Herculaneum. (Rachelle Martyn et al, Antiquity)

Skeletons in boathouses

Many of the skeletons found in the fomici are of adult females and adolescents, while those found on the nearby beach were mostly young and adult males. Tim Thompson, Professor of Applied Biological Anthropology, at Teesside University, told Ancient Origins that:

‘When you look at the demographics, it seems that the women and children were sheltering in the boathouses while the men were on the beach, most likely trying to get the boats out ready to sail away’.

This shows how the residents reacted to the disaster and how they vainly attempted to arrange for their escape.

It seems that those who fled to a boathouse believed it ‘was a temporary haven’, Prof Thompson told Ancient Origins, but in fact, they met their end in these shelters.  Researchers crushed up some of the rib bones and these samples were analyzed using a FITRO spectrometer and specialist software. The team then measured, the crystals in the samples and this allowed them to determine the level of collagen preservation (soft tissue) of those who died in the boathouses.

The in situ human remains preserved inside one of the stone chambers. (Rachelle Martyn et al, Antiquity)

The in situ human remains preserved inside one of the stone chambers. (Rachelle Martyn et al, Antiquity)

Vesuvius’ victims

What they found was totally unexpected. It was established that those who died in the boathouses still had a great deal of their soft tissue. Now given the temperature of the pyroclastic flow from Mount Vesuvius it could be assumed that for those in the formici, the soft tissue would have been vaporized and replaced by ash. This was not the case and therefore they did not die in the way that would be expected but instead were possibly baked alive in the boathouses. The process was certainly slower than vaporization.

Moreover, according to Antiquity ‘Observations of brown rather than blackened bone and the apparent lack of cracking in the long bones’ suggest those in the shelter were not exposed to the intense heat of the flows. The state of the bones would also strongly suggest that the presence of soft tissue can help to protect bones from heat. This is important for the future study of the impact of extreme heat on bones and skeletons.

Vaporized by the flow

Many of those who died in Herculaneum died in the  ‘pugilistic position’, with their fists clenched in the air, reports Antiquity. This indicates that they were instantaneously vaporized upon the impact of the flow of hot ash and lava.The dead in the boathouses were found in more natural positions. This and the difference in the collagen levels of those found in the formici strongly suggests that they died in markedly different ways to those elsewhere in Herculaneum.

A plan and 3D map of the location of bodies in one of the fornici. (Rachelle Martyn et al, Antiquity)

A plan and 3D map of the location of bodies in one of the fornici. (Rachelle Martyn et al, Antiquity)

Researchers in a separate report, also released today, have come across ‘solid black material’ inside the skull of a victim at Herculaneum, and this seem to be brain tissue that was vitrified by the extreme heat experienced in those more exposed in Herculaneum, which was up to 520 degrees Celcius, reports The Guardian

Howewer those in the formici could have experienced lower temperatures because the pyroclastic flow was cooler than often thought, possibly between 240 and 300 degrees Celsius. The most likely reason for the differences identified is because those who perished in the stone shelters died in a different environment. Those who died in the formici were less exposed than those who died elsewhere and only had minimal exposure to what must have been terrible heat. As a result, more of their soft tissue survived when compared to the other victims of Vesuvius.

How did the boathouse people die?

Prof Thompson told Ancient Origins, ‘The vaporization theory would mean instant death, and we are arguing that this didn’t happen’. It appears that those who died in the stone shelters would have survived longer than those who perished elsewhere in Herculaneum. This may mean that they could have suffered a long and lingering death. However, Prof. Thompson told Ancient Origins that ‘We can’t actually tell this from studying the remains’.

The research has expanded the way we understand how those at Herculaneum, and in Pompeii and elsewhere died when Vesuvius erupted. Moreover, it is also helping to advance the study of burned bones, from archaeological sites.  The research methods used by the experts have been validated and they can now be used for other purposes. According to Thompson, ‘these methods work really well on human remains, and can, therefore, be transferred to the modern context’.

Lessons for modern societies

The research can also help modern people with regard to how they respond and react to a volcanic eruption. Prof. Thompson told Ancient Origins:

‘It’s important that we have an understanding of what happens in a variety of contexts and situations following a volcanic eruption, and here we have studied a particular situation which we cannot usually explore’.

A full report on the researchers’ findings has been published in Antiquity.

Top image: Victims found in a fornici hiding from the blast of Mount Vesuvius     Source: Rachelle Martyn et al, Antiquity

By Ed Whelan

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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