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Exploding heads & boiling blood: Vesuvius eruption deaths far grislier than previously believed - research findings say [photos]

The latest archaeological research near Mount Vesuvius indicates that the victims of the 79AD eruption may have died from vaporized internal organs and bodily fluids which, in turn, caused their skulls to explode.

During the two-day eruption, Pompeii and other settlements within a 20km radius of Vesuvius were carpeted in volcanic ash before the 200- to 500-degree Celsius (392- to 932-degree Fahrenheit) pyroclastic flow smashed the settlements into the annals of history at a speed of between 100 and 300kph (62 to 186mph).

“Here we show for the first time convincing experimental evidence suggesting the rapid vaporisation of body fluids and soft tissues of the 79AD Herculaneum victims at death by exposure to extreme heat,” researchers from the Federico II University Hospital in Italy wrote in their paper.

The towns of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabiae, seven, 10 and 16km from the volcanic vent respectively, were the hardest hit. The team concentrated on some of the remains of roughly 300 people who had taken refuge in waterfront buildings in Herculaneum.

The archaeologists focused on the preservation of red and black mineral deposits on the bones found in 12 waterfront chambers near the Roman town. The same atypical minerals were found in ash taken from the skull cavities of the 103 skeletons studied as part of the research.

Large amounts of iron and iron oxides from the residue on the bones indicates that the victims’ bodily fluids and soft tissues vaporized rapidly due to exposure to extreme heat. While proximity to metal objects such as coins, rings etc. could explain some of the residue, it would not nearly account for all of it, especially given the number of victims involved.

© Petrone et al./PLOS One
“Careful inspection of the victims’ skeletons revealed cracking and explosion of the skullcap and blackening of the outer and inner table, associated with black exudations from the skull openings and the fractured bone,” the researchers wrote.

The remains were also subjected to inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry and Raman microspectroscopy analyses to confirm the findings.

Vesuvius is located approximately 12km from modern-day Naples, a city with a population of roughly three million. Evidence suggests the area experiences a volcanic eruption roughly every 2,000 years, with the latest taking place in 1944.

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