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Ancient ash flow brought sudden death

11:25am, April 11, 2001

When volcanic death swept down the slopes of Mount Vesuvius into the city of Herculaneum in A.D. 79, it arrived so quickly that some residents didn't even have time to flinch.

Researchers have excavated the skeletons of 80 victims who had sought shelter from the eruption in boathouses along the beach. The postures of these victims are relaxed and show no sign that these Herculaneans perceived immediate danger, says Alberto Incoronato, an archaeologist at the University of Naples Federico II in Italy. He and his colleagues describe their findings in the April 12 Nature.

When the devastating eruption occurred, Herculaneum had at least 20,000 residents, says James Higginbotham, an archaeologist at B

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