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21 Feb 2020 7:36
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  •   Home > News > International

    Mount Vesuvius eruption so hot it 'turned victim's brain to glass', archaeologists say

    Experts believe temperatures reached a maximum of 520 degrees Celsius in the building the victim was found in when Mount Vesuvius erupted about 2,000 years ago.

    The heat generated from the Mount Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD was so extreme it turned one victim's brain to glass, a new archaeological report has found.

    The city of Herculaneum was buried in hot gas and rock along with its more famous counterpart, Pompeii, in southern Italy when the volcano exploded about 2,000 years ago.

    In the time since, archaeologists have discovered the remains of countless victims — in 2018 alone, officials found one pinned by a fridge-sized stone as well as the remains of a harnessed horse.

    Still, discoveries of cerebral tissues in human remains are rare archaeologically speaking, according to the report, published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

    And when they are found, they are most likely to have been "saponified", meaning converted to soap over time.

    But the brain of one person who perished in Herculaneum found in the 1960s on a wooden bed under volcanic ash in a building known as the Collegium Augustalium reportedly experienced a different fate.

    The researchers say they discovered shards of shiny black material in the victim's skull, which appeared to be the remains of brain tissue converted into glass by heat.

    They worked this out by testing the shards and analysing the proteins found within them, confirming them as proteins known to be found in the human brain. The experts also tested what appeared to be the victim's hair, finding fatty acids generally present in human hair.

    However, "glassy material was undetectable elsewhere in the skeleton or in the adjacent volcanic ash, and it was not found in other locations at the archaeological site".

    Together, these discoveries indicated the thermally induced preservation of "vitrified human brain tissue", the experts said.

    According to the report, archaeologists also analysed charred wood at the site, which revealed temperatures reached a maximum of 520 degrees Celsius in the building the person was found in.

    "This suggests that extreme radiant heat was able to ignite body fat and vaporise soft tissues; a rapid drop in temperature followed," the report reads.

    One of its co-authors, Pierpaolo Petrone, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Naples Federico II, told The Guardian that vitrified remains of the brain had never been found before.

    He told the publication of his discovery: "I noticed something shining inside the head."

    "This material was preserved exclusively in the victim's skull, thus it had to be the vitrified remains of the brain. But it had to be proved beyond any reasonable doubt."


    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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