Italy: A change in thinking on Pompeii

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POMPEII, Italy — A child lies on the ground with his tiny arms elevated in motion. Beside him, a woman with another child on her lap clenches her fists, as if guarding herself from an inevitable horror. Inside a dimly lit room, surrounded by chipping coral frescoes, lie 2,000-year-old skeletal remnants, vividly human forms encased in chalky plaster.

The Mt. Vesuvius volcano took their lives in 79 A.D., unleashing its fury and burying the ancient port city of Pompeii under layers of lava and ashes. The sight was so horrific, that Pompeians thought the gods had grown angry — and that the end of the world was near.

Since the uncovering of Pompeii in 1599, archeologists believed that these ancient Romans died by being suffocated by the ashes and gases spewing for two days from the mouth of Vesuvius. Their theory rested on the account of a contemporary witness, Pliny the Younger, who saw the eruption from across the Gulf of Naples, claiming that his uncle in Pompeii had taken his last breath under a cloud of ash.

“Our scientific research has proven differently, that death came because of the temperature, not suffocation,” said Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, a rogue vulcanologist from the Naples Observatory. “Everything that has been written in the guides, and the texts, and that has been re-told to tourists is false,” he said.

After years of analyzing nearly 100 skeletal casts, testing bone tissue and creating numerous simulations of the Vesuvius eruption, Mastrolorenzo concluded that the people of Pompeii were instantly killed by a pyroclastic cloud, a gusty surge carrying the volcano’s lethal temperatures.

His findings were recently published in the science journal, PLoS One. Mastrolorenzo and his team of scientists exposed human and animal bones to high temperatures to see how their color and micro-structure would change. Bones in the lab began looking like bones in Pompeii once reaching temperatures of between 480 and 570 degrees Fahrenheit.

They became the first scientists to question the letters of Pliny the Younger.

Pliny the Younger, 17 years old at the time of the eruption, didn’t write his accounts of the eruption that usurped the city of Pompeii and other small towns surrounding the volcano until 25 years later.

Still, his letters persuade historians to believe that after the initial eruption blew off the crater’s cap, those who weren’t killed by the rocks falling on Pompeii rooftops at 90 miles per hour were later suffocated by the ashes and gases.

“It’s easy to piece together archeological evidence that we can see with our own eyes, with the detailed account of good old Pliny the Young,” said Antonio Varone, director of the Pompeii Archeological Site.

Archeologists have found skeletons inside underground cavities formed by hardened ash. Those cavities, injected with plaster, served as molds to recreate the bodies’ positions at the moment of death. For Varone, the presence of hardened ash supports Pliny’s account.

At the Garden of the Fugitives, a dozen plaster casts lay face down with their arms and legs in running position, depicting the moment of horror at the peak of the eruption.

“The suspension of the action is a phenomenon called cadaveric spasm,” Mastrolorenzo said. “It is very rare and occurs during nuclear explosions and volcanic eruptions.”

According to the volcanologist, one of the most vivid examples of cadaveric spasm sits behind lock and key inside a storage room full of broken urns and fountains. There, the cast of a man with his fists blocking his face sits suspended in time, squatting over a latrine.

But for many like Varone and his staff at the Pompeii site, Mastrolorenzo’s research not only discounts the evidence of Pliny’s writings, but also questions what they are able to see for themselves.

“The bodies are found with their hands next to their mouth, as if trying to gasp for air,” said Mattia Buondonno, a public relations officer at the Pompeii site. “It’s because they couldn’t breath, not because they were being burned alive.”

For Mastrolorenzo, convincing the Board of Supervisors in Pompeii isn’t the end-goal. In studying the rate at which the pyroclastic cloud flew over Pompeii in 79 A.D, Mastrolorenzo’s researched also demonstrated that these high temperatures can be maintained and carried up to 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) away from the volcano.

The Italian Civil Protection, the nation’s FEMA, currently requires only those people living five miles (eight kilometers) from Vesuvius to evacuate.

“If we consider that within just 10 kilometers [6.2 miles] we already find Naples,” Mastrolorenzo said, “then in the case of another eruption, like the one in 79 A.D., at least 3 million people would be at risk.” 

Editor's note: The photo gallery attached to this story was updated to correct the height of Mt. Vesuvius. It is just over 4,000 feet high.