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X-Ray Helps Solve Pompeii’s Victims Mystery

Pompeii and a view of Vesuvius
Archaeologists suggest that Pompeians had a short period of time when many of them tried to escape. Credit: Carlo Pelagalli / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Scientists conducted a study that has deepened understanding of the manner in which the inhabitants of Pompeii died.

The most destructive eruption of Mount Vesuvius, located on the coast of the Gulf of Naples, occurred in 79 AD. Despite the wide interest of the world scientific community in this ancient catastrophe, experts still disagree about the specific cause of the death of victims.

A prevalent hypothesis that experts supported for an extended period linked their demise to massive ash clouds under which they reportedly suffocated. However, in recent times, more and more scientists began to claim that people died instantly due to fiery gases that evaporated the fluids of their bodies. In 2020, scientists discovered a vitreous mass in the skull of one of Pompeii’s victims. Analysis showed that these were the remains of an instantly evaporated brain.

New Study on Pompeii’s Victims Confirms Old Theory

However, the latest study, conducted by a group of scientists and published in PLOS ONE, is back to the original version. According to archaeologists, there was still a short time period during which the inhabitants of the city tried to escape. The study confirms that death did not occur as a result of a “single catastrophic event,” but rather the fleeing residents of Pompeii died due to suffocating ashes.

Vesuvius erupted in two key stages. During the first stage, hot gas, ash, and fine-grained pumice spewed out. This led to the collapse of roofs in Pompeii and toppled trees. Some residents fell victim to these materials, but a new study shows that many managed to survive and escape. However, Pompeii’s victims reportedly died about twenty hours after the start of the eruption.

According to scientists, people had to flee the city on a layer of pumice, and many used branches as canes to navigate the path. After the first phase of the eruption, a huge amount of ash was formed, and although the temperature of the enveloping gas-ash mixture was not very high, people could not breathe normally. This caused asphyxiation.

In the 1870s, archaeologists in Pompeii discovered air voids in a layer of rubble that contained human bones. They filled the voids with plaster, creating three-dimensional models of the dead. These plaster prints became “speaking evidence” of the last moments of the victims’ life. But the gypsum contaminated the bones, making them difficult to analyze later.

Methods and Results

The new research used X-ray fluorescence to study the composition of bones and plaster. According to the team, their goal was to “restore the history” of Pompeii’s victims.

The objects of study were seven plaster casts, six of which were found at the city gates of Porta Nola. The bodies of the victims were located on top of a thick layer of pumice, suggesting that they survived the first phase of the eruption and attempted to flee the city after the pumice stopped falling. Gianni Gallello, an archaeologist at the University of Valencia, noted that escaping the city was extremely difficult. Despite the active moving, it seems that all the victims lie on their backs, their stomachs, or on their sides in a relaxed position. We can thus assume that the ashes and volcanic gases were a real cause of death.

The researchers identified the relatively intact bones using x-rays. Gallello noted that the previous study leading to the instant death of the victims analyzed remains from the nearby city of Herculaneum, which was also destroyed. Many of the discovered skeletons were in the characteristic “boxer’s pose,” which indicates a quick death from drying or dehydration.

However, this new study found that the bodies were sprawled, indicating a slow death from suffocation or exhaustion. Moreover, casts on plaster show that some of the victims tried to cover themselves with clothes so as not to inhale the ashes. As Galello noted, only after death did the lava flow around the bodies, heating the ashes and burning the clothes and flesh of the victims. This resulted in charred bones and human-shaped voids.

Experts highlighted the importance of the results of such studies. Namely, experts can assist residents of high-risk areas to prepare for potential disasters associated with volcanic eruptions.

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