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Herculaneum victims of Vesuvius in ad 79

The eruption's first surge instantly killed some people sheltering from the impact.


The town of Herculaneum, lying at the foot of Mount Vesuvius on a cliff overlooking the sea, was buried by a succession of pyroclastic surges and flows (currents of volcanic ash and hot gases generated by collapse of the eruptive column) during the plinian eruption of ad 79. The skeletons of 80 of 300 people who had taken refuge in 12 boat chambers along the beach have now been unearthed from the first surge deposit. We have investigated how these people were killed by this surge, despite being sheltered from direct impact, after its abrupt collapse (emplacement) at about 500 °C on the beach. The victims' postures indicate that they died instantly, suggesting that the cause of death was thermally induced fulminant shock1 and not suffocation, which is believed to have killed many of the inhabitants of Pompeii and of Herculaneum itself.

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Figure 1: The feet of a child's skeleton recovered from a waterfront boat chamber after being entombed in the first surge of the ad 79 Vesuvius eruption.

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Correspondence to Peter J. Baxter.

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Mastrolorenzo, G., Petrone, P., Pagano, M. et al. Herculaneum victims of Vesuvius in ad 79. Nature 410, 769–770 (2001).

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