Italy’s Mount Vesuvius was so hot when it erupted that it turned one victim’s brain to glass, according to a new analysis of the tragic statues left behind by the volcano’s destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The cataclysmic blast caught most people by surprise in 79 A.D., when it buried an area of 20 square kilometres under volcanic ash and pumice within just a few hours. The incident encased thousands of victims in ash, preserving their agonized final expressions in moulds that would endure long after their bodies had decayed.
But while most victims’ bodies did decay, researchers say part of one person’s brain survived.
Archeologists say they recovered a piece of brain matter from one victim in Herculaneum, a small city that was closer to Vesuvius than Pompeii when the volcano erupted nearly 2,000 years ago. It’s not the first bit of brain tissue to be found, but where past samples have essentially turned into soap, this new sample was different.
The brain tissue had been turned to glass in a process known as vitrification, according to the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“This is the first ever discovery of ancient human brain remains vitrified by heat,” study co-author Pier Paolo Petrone told BBC News. Petrone led the project in his role as a forensic anthropologist at the University of Naples Federico II.
The victim appears to have been a man in his mid-20s who was working as a caretaker at the Collegium Augustalium, a place of worship in Herculaneum. He was lying on a wooden bed when he died.
Analysis of the charred bed shows the victim was exposed to a maximum temperature of 520 C (968 F). The heat was so intense that it burned the tissue and turned it into glass.
“This suggests that extreme radiant heat was able to ignite body fat and vaporize soft tissue,” the study said. The authors add that a sharp drop in temperature after the blast likely helped in the vitrification process.
Most of the victim’s tissue was transformed into a solid, spongy mass, much like what happened to firebombing victims during the Second World War, the study said.
Petrone says he was analyzing this spongy material when he spotted a few black fragments in the victim’s skull.
“I noticed something shining inside the head,” he told the Guardian newspaper. “This material was preserved exclusively in the victim’s skull, thus it had to be the vitrified remains of the brain.”