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Herculaneum victims of Vesuvius in ad 79

Nature volume 410, pages 769770 (12 April 2001) | Download Citation



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.

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

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  1. *Osservatorio Vesuviano, Via Manzoni 249, 80123 Napoli, Italy

    • Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo
  2. †Centro Musei delle Scienze Naturali, Museo di Antropologia, Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, Via Mezzocannone 8, 80134 Napoli, Italy

    • Pier P. Petrone
  3. ‡Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei, Scavi di Ercolano, 80056 Ercolano, Italy

    • Mario Pagano
  4. §Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra, Largo S. Marcellino 10, 80138 Napoli, Italy

    • Alberto Incoronato
  5. University of Cambridge Clinical School, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Hills Road, Cambridge CB2 2QQ, UK

    • Peter J. Baxter
  6. ¶Centro Interdipartimentale di Servizio di Analisi Geomineralogiche, Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, Via Mezzocannone 8, 80134 Napoli, Italy

    • Antonio Canzanella
  7. #Dipartimento di Biologia Evolutiva e Comparata, Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, Via Mezzocannone 8, 80134 Napoli, Italy

    • Luciano Fattore


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Correspondence to Peter J. Baxter.

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