When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, the ancient city of Pompeii was decimated and thousands of people died. Despite being one of the most famous, and best-preserved, natural disasters in human history, there is still much debate as to how these people perished. Now, a new analysis adds credence to the theory that some of them, at least, suffocated on clouds of noxious gas and ash spewed out by the volcano.
As well as asphyxiation, it has been suggested that victims may have been flash-heated to death, with their bodily fluids vaporized by the intense heat of the first pyroclastic surge. Other theories have posited that they died an even more grisly and prolonged death, essentially being baked alive, or that they may have suffered gradual dehydration as temperatures soared. One recent study suggested that the initial wave of hot gas could have turned people’s brains to glass.
In the new research, an international team analyzed the remains of seven individuals using an innovative technique called portable X-ray fluorescence, concluding that they likely died as a result of asphyxiation.
The team studied seven plaster casts – created by pouring plaster into the hollow voids left by the decomposed bodies that were buried under layers of volcanic material – six of which were recovered from the Porta Nola city gate and one from a suburban bathhouse.
Using non-invasive X-ray analysis, they were able to determine the composition of both the bones and plaster, and then compare them with other burnt bones from necropolises in Rome and Valencia.
The burning of the bones recovered from Pompeii occurred after the victims were already dead, similar to a cremation, the team concluded.
“When their bones suffered the effects of the high temperatures caused by the pyroclastic waves and magma currents, the victims had already died, probably from inhaling toxic gases,” Dr Llorenç Alapont, one of the study authors, said in a statement.
The bodies they examined were laid in a relaxed position, generally on the back or side, and some individuals had covered themselves with pieces of clothing, further suggesting they died by suffocation and may have attempted to prevent themselves from breathing in ash.
It is thought the Porta Nola individuals were fleeing the doomed city at the time of their death; some had even fashioned walking sticks out of branches to help them walk on the treacherous layer of pumice.
“The victims, in their attempt to escape, suffocated very quickly and were also quickly covered in ash,” study author Dr Gianni Gallello explained.
However, the researchers were also careful to emphasize that these findings don’t necessarily mean that all of Pompeii’s 2,000-odd victims died in such a way. "It is likely that the catastrophic eruption killed people in different ways," they write. "Generalizing and supporting a sole hypothesis of death becomes overly reductive."
Regardless, they hope that by continuing to use portable X-ray fluorescence to non-invasively analyze the remains at Pompeii, they will be able to shed more light on the final moments of the city’s people and perhaps put the debate surrounding their demise to bed.
The study is published in PLOS ONE.