Mount Vesuvius may have suffocated, not vaporized, some victims

People who took refuge in stone boathouses died a slower death when the volcano erupted

Mount Vesuvius boathouse

Some people fleeing the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 hid in these stone boathouses.

Norbert Nagel/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When Mount Vesuvius erupted nearly 2,000 years ago, the blast may not have instantly killed some fleeing residents of Herculaneum, a seaside outpost near Pompeii. Instead, they more slowly baked and suffocated to death in stone boathouses used as shelter, researchers say.

Previous evidence had suggested that everyone fleeing the volcano’s most legendary eruption in A.D. 79 were instantly vaporized as a wave of volcanic gases, heat and ash swept through the town (SN: 4/11/01). But a new analysis of skeletons found in the boathouses challenges this idea and suggests a slower, grislier death. 

Researchers examined the bone structure and collagen levels — a protein important for skin and bone health — of ribs taken from 152 individuals uncovered in the boathouses. The team found more collagen than expected if Vesuvius’ victims had vaporized in the heat. Their rib bone structure also suggests escapees were exposed to lower temperatures than those caught in the open, where the air sizzled as hot as 480° Celsius, according to some previous estimates.

The stone hideout and victims’ body masses might have provided protection from the most extreme temperatures, researchers report January 23 in Antiquity. 

Vesuvius skeletons
New evidence suggests heat turned the stone boathouses where people took shelter from Mount Vesuvius’ eruption into ovens: Victims baked and suffocated inside. R. Martyn et al/Antiquity 2020

These findings depict a horrifying scenario where Herculaneum residents hid for protection only to bake and suffocate on a surge of toxic volcanic gas in their sanctuary, says study author Tim Thompson, a biological anthropologist at Teesside University in Middlesbrough, England. Most of the victims in the boathouses were women and children. Men were found on a nearby beach, where they may have dragged out boats to escape the fiery inferno.  

The study “allows us to think a bit more and put ourselves in the shoes of those individuals,” Thompson says. “What would we do? What would it be like?” 

Erin I. Garcia de Jesus is a staff writer at Science News. She holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington and a master’s in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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