This Vesuvius Victim 'Vaporized Instantly'

First skeleton found at Herculaneum in decades is stained red by blood
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 2, 2021 9:50 AM CST
Vesuvius Victim's Head Literally Exploded
The skeletons of victims of the AD79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, found grouped together at Herculaneum.   (Wikimedia Commons/Andrea Schaffer)

(Newser) – If you had to endure the AD79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii might not have been the worst place to be. While Pompeii residents are believed to have suffocated in a cloud of ash and gases in just 15 minutes, before they were covered in volcanic debris, new excavations at Herculaneum, a wealthy neighboring beach town, lend new credence to the theory that victims literally had their heads explode in a pyroclastic cloud. The eruption's impact was similar to that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, archaeologists say, per the Guardian. A Roman man—possibly a naval officer assisting in the evacuation—was "vaporized instantly" on the beach as temperatures reached 500 degrees Celsius, or 932 degrees Fahrenheit, per the Telegraph.

"The force of the eruption was so strong that it was able to hurl marble columns [65 feet] or more," archaeologist Ivan Varriale tells the Telegraph. The skull of the man "pretty much exploded," says archaeologist Pier Paolo Petrone. Wood fragments from tree trunks and wooden beams, found around the skeleton, reveal temperatures reached at least 932 degrees Fahrenheit. "They would have burnt off all his clothing and vaporized his flesh. Death would have been instantaneous," says Petrone. He adds the skeleton—stained red by the man's blood—only remains "because to disintegrate bone you need to reach temperatures of around 1,000 [degrees Celsius]." That's 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit.

The city was later hit "by six waves of volcanic mud that arrived like a flood and froze it under almost [65 feet] of material," archaeologist Domenico Camardo tells the Guardian. The skeleton—uncovered in October close to an area where the remains of 300 victims sheltering together were found in the 1980s and '90s —is the first discovered at the site in 40 years, Petrone tells the Telegraph. The man, between the ages of 40 and 45, is thought to have been clutching a leather bag that also vaporized, revealing a wooden box with an emerging ring of bronze or iron. "We expect to find precious objects—or at least objects that were precious to him" once the skeleton and box are moved to a lab, Varriale says. He adds that a 3D replica of the skeleton will be made. (Read more Vesuvius stories.)

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