Menus Subscribe Search

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

July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

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