Heat brought instant death in Pompeii

Temperatures as hot as 600 degrees Celsius killed residents of Pompeii within 10 seconds in 79 AD, a new study reveals.

The people of Pompeii who died when Vesuvius erupted nearly 2,000 years ago were killed by intense heat rather than suffocation, according to a new study. Thousands of the Roman city's inhabitants were caught in a firestorm in which they were exposed to temperatures of up to 600 C, a team of Italian scientists believe.

The temperatures would have killed fleeing people in just 10 seconds, according to the volcanologists and anthropologists from Naples, the city overshadowed by the volcano. "Contrary to what was thought up until now, the victims didn't suffer a prolonged agony from suffocation, but rather died instantaneously from the exposure to high temperatures," the team wrote in a peer-reviewed science journal, PLoS ONE. "Our findings reveal that neither asphyxia nor impact force, but heat, caused the deaths."

Red-hot clouds of gas and fine ash known as pyroclastic density currents flowed down the slopes of Vesuvius, engulfing Pompeii's frescoed villas, as well as its shops, public baths and brothels, where explicit erotic paintings and the customers' graffiti can still be seen. "Field and laboratory study of the eruption products and victims indicate that heat was the main cause of death of people previously supposed to have died by ash suffocation," the scientists said.

"Our results show that exposure to at least 250 C hot surges at a distance of 10 kilometres from the vent was sufficient to cause instant death, even if people were sheltered within buildings." Vesuvius had been rumbling for days when it finally erupted in 79 AD. Although thousands of people had already fled Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum, many others were unable or unwilling to leave and perished in the heat.

Visitors to the ancient sites can still see plaster casts of the victims' contorted bodies at the moment they died, clinging to each other or burying their heads in their hands in a futile attempt to withstand the calamity. Vesuvius remains one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes. The 1.5 million people who live in Naples and surrounding towns have learned to ignore it, but the sheer density of population means that any future eruption would be catastrophic. The last major event was in March 1944, but the Osservatorio Vesuviano, which has monitored its activity since 1841, believes the next eruption could come at any time.


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