Study of Vesuvius Victim's Skull Reveals His Brain Turned to Glass

Clay Curtis
January 26, 2020

But Italian anthropologists say the fragment is actually part of an exploded brain from an victim of Italy " s Mount Vesuvius eruption in AD 79. Their findings published Thursday in the journal Antiquity.

Lead author Dr. Pier Paola Petrone - head of University of Naples Federico II's human osteobiology and forensic anthropology lab - says that "The preservation of ancient brain remains is an extremely rare find". The eruption of Vesuvius instantly killed all of the inhabitants of Pompeiiand neighboring Herculaneum.

Residents of the town, Herculaneum, were buried under a thick blanket of ash and volcanic matter, entombing people engaged in their daily lives.

Studies on the ribs of 152 skeletons showed that residents died not because of extreme heat but because of toxic gasses, they found. Collagen that remained in the bones was "inconsistent with vaporisation", Teesside said in a statement.

The discovery is remarkable as the tissue of the brain hardly remains preserved after decomposition.

Like numerous areas inhabitants, the caretaker was killed instantly, when deadly currents of superheated gases, ash and rock fragments, known as pyroclastic flows, swept through the town. 79 remains to be the most fascinating natural tragedies in history. The researchers say he was killed in the volcano's first pyroclastic surge, which made the town reach temperatures of 968 degrees Fahrenheit, but wasn't buried until later waves of crushed volcanic rock flowed through Herculaneum.

Petrone has been researching victims of Vesuvius since the mid-1990s when the director of the archaeological site asked him to dig and investigate 80 victims found in several seaside chambers on the city's beach.

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Archaeologists working on the site of Herculaneum - the other city that had been wiped out when Pompeii erupted - discovered small pieces of black glass in the skull of one of the victims.

Further analysis by Piero Pucci from the CEINGE advanced biotech centre in Naples confirmed that it did indeed contain bits of proteins and fatty acids from hair and brain tissue.

Hundreds of others fled to the beach in a vain attempt to escape disaster as Vesuvius blew, and a new study by researchers at Teesside University in the United Kingdom says that here the temperatures of the deadly pyroclastic flows were likely too low to have killed them instantly. "We could also see that the victims had not been burned at high temperatures".

The remains were first unearthed during the 1960s at the Collegium Augustalium in Herculaneum, but it wasn't until years later was the body fully examined.

Researchers behind the study believe the black material is the vitrified remains of the man's brain.

"The high heat was literally able to burn the victim's fat and body tissues, causing the brain to vitrify", the archaeological site of Herculaneum said in a statement.

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