Remains of the Inhabitants of Herculaneum who took shelter in the coast buildings during Vesuvius eruption.

Remains of the Inhabitants of Herculaneum who took shelter in the coast buildings during Vesuvius eruption.

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Remains of the Inhabitants of Herculaneum who took shelter in the coast buildings during Vesuvius eruption.

British scientists have discovered that Mount Vesuvius victims who died at Herculaneum had far more painful deaths than previously believed.

Residents of the Roman town of Herculaneum were not instantly vaporised by Vesuvius but instead were baked and suffocated to death, a study has found. Pictured: while many of the town’s residents evacuated before the eruption, around 340 took shelter in stone bathhouses

People living in the seaside area, who fled to stone boat houses along the beachfront when the volcano erupted, are widely thought to have been vaporised by the intense heat of the volcanic eruption.

But a recent study of skeletons from the scene reveals that they may have survived long enough to suffocate  from the toxic fumes of the pyroclastic flow- the devastating, ultra-fast stream of hot gas and volcanic matter that flows from some eruptions,

Archaeologists found that the structure of the skeletons and remaining collagen was inconsistent with vaporisation, suggesting that the bodies were not exposed to temperatures as extreme as expected.

While many of Herculaneum residents evacuated before the eruption, at least 340 people perished after sheltering in stone boathouses and on the beach
As some of the towns’ menfolk hurried to prepare boats on the beach, many women and children took refuge in the vaulted stone boathouses — or ‘fornici’ — where they would ultimately been unearthed centuries later in 1980

The eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 famously buried the Roman town of Pompeii and the pyroclastic flow destroyed nearby Herculaneum.

More than 340 people who took refuge in the town’s vaulted stone boathouses (fornici) perished.

Professor Oliver Craig from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology said: “The realisation that collagen was present in the Herculaneum bones was completely unexpected.

“We realised then that commonly held assumptions regarding the manner of their death could not be true.

“If the bones were exposed to extreme heat then we would expect the collagen to be lost very quickly from the bone. Finding collagen was our first indicator of lower temperature exposure.”

‘They hid for protection and got stuck. The general theory has been that these individuals were instantly vaporised,’ said Professor Thompson

Tests conducted on the ribs of 152 individuals from the fornici revealed they did not match the patterns expected if they had been exposed to extremely high temperatures of 300 – 500C.

Forensic expert Professor Tim Thompson, the lead author from Teesside University, said: “The people hid for protection, and got stuck.

The general theory has been that these individuals were instantly vaporised.

“What was interesting was that we had good collagen preservation but also evidence of heat-induced change in the bone crystallinity.

We could also see that the victims had not been burned at high temperatures.”

This vaporisation theory has been supported by the fact that few of the human remains from Herculaneum were found in the so-called ‘pugilistic attitude’ — or ‘boxer position’, with flexed elbows and knees as well as clenched fist — which does not occur if temperatures are high enough to rapidly vaporise this flesh off of the bone.

The research team said it may have that the pyroclastic flow was relatively cool, with some estimates suggesting it was only 240C.

The fornici may have also provided some insulation, further lowering the temperature people were exposed to.

The researchers said the collagen preservation in the bones of the Herculaneum victims has opened up a range of new avenues of research, including using stable isotope measurements to generate a snapshot of the Roman diet.

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P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.

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