Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


CSI: Pompeii

• September 30, 2010 • 5:00 AM

The ancient Romans of Pompeii were already parboiled when the lava arrived, according to a new investigation with scary implications for modern-day Naples.

Ever since 19th-century archaeologists started making plaster casts of the fallen inhabitants of Pompeii, it has been assumed they died from suffocation as a thick layer of ash fell on the town following a massive eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

But a new report from a team of Italian scientists tells a very different tale about what happened to the residents of the Roman town, and it has important implications for the 3 million people who today live around the world’s most dangerous volcano.

A meticulous study of bones, household objects and other evidence — a little like a CSI investigation of a 1,900-year-old cold case — suggests that the victims died suddenly in an intense blast of fine ash and superheated gas called a pyroclastic surge, says Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, a senior researcher at the Vesuvius Observatory in Naples.

“Impact and suffocation were not important,” he says. “The victims were killed by the high temperatures.”

Karl Brullov, "The Last Day of Pompeii," 1830-33. (Wikipedia.org) Click to enlarge.

The deadly surge passed through Pompeii, a little over 6 miles from Vesuvius, at a speed of around 40 mph, instantly raising temperatures to 500 degrees Fahrenheit and causing sudden death, Mastrolorenzo says. The victims were found in postures characteristic of cadaveric spasm, in which the muscles stiffen at the moment of death, according to the study.

Ominously, the lethal effects of a succession of six pyroclastic surges from the eruption extended more than 12 miles from Vesuvius. The findings were reported in “Lethal Thermal Impact at Periphery of Pyroclastic Surges: Evidences at Pompeii,” published online at the PLoS One website.

At the time of the eruption, Pompeii was a thriving seaside town of about 15,000-20,000 on the Gulf of Naples. Even then, the surrounding region of Campania, which had been blanketed by ash from eruptions going back thousands of years, was densely populated due to the mineral-rich volcanic soil.

At midday on Aug. 24, 79 A.D., earthquakes and belching ash from the volcano presaged the impending eruption. “At least 90 percent of the people were able to evacuate in the early phase of the eruption,” Mastrolorenzo says. But for unknown reasons, about 1,000 people remained behind (calling to mind those who decided to stay in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina bore down).

Mount Vesuvius. (Wikipedia.org)

The first three surges from the volcano did not reach Pompeii, although there was a heavy ash fall, sufficient to cause some building roofs to collapse, Mastrolorenzo says.

Although they did not know it, the remaining residents were already doomed. As the layer of ash grew thicker, it became harder to move about (“It’s like walking on snow,” Mastrolorenzo says). Even worse, visibility had declined to almost zero. “Probably they had no idea in which direction to escape because everything was in complete darkness,” Mastrolorenzo says.

After the deadly fourth surge passed through early the next morning, two final surges blanketed the town in meters of ash, burying it so deeply that later generations forgot it had ever existed.

Pompeiians had no concept of what a volcanic eruption was because none had happened in their living memory. “At the first moment, they probably confused the eruption with a storm or a fire on the mountain,” he says. “They could not imagine that a quiet mountain like Vesuvius could change so abruptly.”

Mastrolorenzo believes people living in the region today are not much different. The last eruption occurred in 1944, during World War II, meaning most residents are too young to remember it, he says.

Although a network of sensors continually monitors ground deformation, gas composition and gravity changes, scientists would not be able to predict exactly when the volcano might blow even if the pattern of activity began to pick up. And, as the new study shows, Vesuvius can kill with terrifying speed.

An evacuation plan exists on paper, but it has not been updated recently and makes unwarrantedly optimistic predictions, Mastrolorenzo says. Meanwhile, the last time authorities tried to simulate an evacuation (with just 1,800 residents), the buses that were supposed to be ferrying them to safety stalled in heavy traffic. (Again, reminiscent of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina.)

“This is a major problem in mitigation,” he says – basically, residents and civil authorities don’t take the threat posed by Vesuvius seriously enough. “I’m studying why the common tendency is to be optimistic.”

Mastrolorenzo has also studied the powerful Avellino eruption of 3,780 years ago, which scattered the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Campanian plain and rendered the area around Vesuvius uninhabitable for hundreds of years. And he warns that the western suburbs of Naples are built atop Campei Flegrei, a collapsed volcanic caldera that in the past has seen “super eruptions” — large enough to cause global climate change.

Shockingly, he says, no contingency plans exist should Campei Flegrei become active once more. He blames the city’s citizens as much as public officials.

“There is no interest,” he says, “because they prefer to care about everyday activity.”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Michael Haederle
Michael Haederle lives in New Mexico. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, People Magazine, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and many other publications. He has also taught at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and is a Zen lay monk.

More From Michael Haederle

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.