Mount Vesuvius eruption turned ancient victim's brain to glass

Nellie Chapman
January 25, 2020

In A.D. 79, the town of Herculaneum was a popular seaside resort town for rich residents of Pompeii. Among the few who stayed in the town was a roughly 25-year-old man whose ash-covered remains were discovered in a wooden bed during the 1960s.

Archaeologists have been investigating the remains of Herculaneum, and Pompeii - the other famous Roman settlement destroyed by Vesuvius - for centuries.

The bed in which his body was found was in a small room of a Collegium Augustalium which was associated with an imperial cult which worshipped the ex-emperor Augustus.

It is also believe that this man was killed instantly when superheated gases, ash and rock fragments engulfed the town.

The analysis revealed proteins known to be found in different areas of the human brain, including the wrinkled cerebral cortex, responsible for higher brain functions like decision-making; the amygdala, important to emotional processing; and the substantia nigra, which helps control movement and our response to rewards.

"If we manage to reheat the material, liquefy it, we could maybe find this individual's DNA", Petrone said.

Thanks to this discovery, the study noted that "extreme radiant heat was able to ignite body fat and vaporize soft tissues", before a "rapid drop in temperature". Co-author Piero Pucci of the Centro di Ingegneria Genetica-Biotecnologie Avanzate in Naples took the shards of brain tissue and analyzed the proteins found within.

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Several compelling signs suggested Petrone's initial hunch was correct.

The scientists were alerted to pieces of glassy black material lodged within the skull's remnants and were prompted to examine them in detail. Analyzing charred wood near the victim allowed the team to know that a maximum temperature of 520 degrees Celcius (968 Fahrenheit) was reached.

Pucci also spotted fatty acids typical for human hair grease, and triglycerides commonly found in brain tissue samples.

Archaeologists rarely uncover human brains during their digs, and if they do, the organs feel soap-like and smooth. "We don't actually believe the vaporization theory at all - even for the victims on the beach". This research, in fact, contradicts a 2018 study headed by Patrone, which found that a pyroclastic surge made victims' blood boil and their skulls explode.

Pier Paolo Petrone, the study's lead, said in an email to Fox News: 'The preservation of ancient brain remains is an extremely rare find, but this is the first-ever discovery of ancient human brain remains, vitrified by heat at about [950 degrees Fahrenheit] produced by a volcanic eruption.

One aspect that makes Herculaneum interesting in comparison with Pompeii is its location relative to Mount Vesuvius, giving some residents time to escape.

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