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Italy: A change in thinking on Pompeii

Scientists question accepted wisdom on what killed Pompeiians when Mt. Vesuvius erupted.

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.