Even until today, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius is considered one of the biggest catastrophes to hit mankind. The citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum were hit by the ferocious power of an erupting volcano. Some succumbed to the effects of lava outside of the city’s walls, while others were covered by large amounts of ash. This same ash caused them to suffocate, but also it preserved their bodies in the state we find them today. For the longest time, scientists were sure that being suffocated by ash was the main way in which people died during this tragic occurrence.
But recently, scientists were able to find evidence that people also fell victim to large amounts of lava streaming down the city streets. The scientists think that the people that were exposed to the high temperatures of the oncoming lava literally started to boil on the inside. The liquids in their bodies started vaporizing, leading to explosions within the skulls of the victim. It is hard to think of more horrifying ways to die than that. In fact, death by lava was much worse than being suffocated by toxic gases or covered by ash.
Research such as this has many applications, and it is not limited to historical or biological use. It offers an interesting insight into the population that inhabited those parts and teaches us much about the way in which they lived, while also providing important data related to the risks of volcanic eruptions in populated areas today. By understanding how these disasters occurred and the effects they had on people before, we can better prepare for similar situations in the future.
The Wrath of a Volcano
During the Mount Vesuvius eruption, two nearby settlements were hit by blasts that were stronger than both of the atomic bombs that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At first, the streets were hit by a thick layer of ash which was then followed by streams of molten gas and rock, better known as the pyroclastic surge.
During the study, scientists looked at 100 hundred remains of more than 300 people that fell victim to the volcano while attempting to hide in boathouses in Herculaneum. Although they were able to dodge the large amounts of ash, they were hit by a wave of the pyroclastic surge. This wave generated temperatures between 400 and 900 degrees Fahrenheit and traveled at a speed of 200 miles per hour.
The surge itself is not what killed the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The main reason for their deaths is the high temperatures which caused the blood in their bodies to boil. Scientists first discovered this when they noticed red and black residue on the bones of some of the victims. There was no clear indication as to where these marks came from until the scientists used spectroscopic analysis. These tests showed that large concentrations of iron created by boiling fluids in the body were the reason that this residue was present. As the liquids in the body boiled, steam was created, causing enough force to make skulls explode. Scientists found skulls with fractures that correspond to injuries like that.
The only positive in such a death is that it occurred almost instantly. The bodies were found in positions that clearly indicate they did not have much time to react to being boiled to death from the inside.
This is not the first research that looked into the way people died during the eruption of the Vesuvius. There were two additional studies, one in 2001 and the other from 2010, that focused on heat as the biggest culprit in the deaths of the people from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Those studies deduced that most of the people died from heat shock more than anything else.
Pompeii and Herculaneum were affected by the same disaster, but due to the difference in distance between the towns and the volcano, the post-mortem effects on the body were vastly different. The residents of Herculaneum were much closer to the volcano and the liquid in their body instantly vaporized while the people from Pompeii were killed much slower but still due to the effects of the heat.
Still, scientists are unsure whether this study is completely accurate. While the evidence is clear that vaporization did occur, it is still unclear if it was really the main cause of death. The fact is that it may have occurred post-mortem. Even if the research is correct, there is no way to explain why most of the bodies froze up before death.
The studies are still very important especially when it comes to assessing the risk of future volcanic eruptions, especially in towns and villages near Vesuvius. The entire area is populated by more than three million people and if this is not taken seriously the consequences could be catastrophic.
The fact scientists have taken an active interest in issues such as this is positive. Vesuvius has been silent for the past 70 years, but it is still considered an active volcano that can erupt at any time and with the same intensity shown during the eruption which occurred in 79 AD. Research like this is hopefully enough to force government officials to take a more serious approach in adapting the procedures in place when it comes to volcanic eruptions, especially in cities such as Naples.