The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 famously destroyed the city of Pompeii by burying it in volcanic ash. However, Pompeii was far from the only victim. Nearly half a dozen towns were destroyed by the volcano, and a group of archaeologists have made a discovery that reveals how the inhabitants of one of those other towns perished. , many of the citizens of nearby Herculaneum died because the volcano’s intense heat made their heads explode.
Pompeii is the most well-known casualty of Vesuvius’ eruption, but it wasn’t even the closest or hardest hit. That was Herculaneum, which was situated only a few miles from the base of the volcano. Unlike Pompeii, which was only hit by falling volcanic ash, Herculaneum was directly in the path of pyroclastic flows headed to the sea.
That mixture of hot gas, lava, and ash covered the whole town in seconds, killing everyone but preserving the town in exquisite detail. Unlike Pompeii, where only stone buildings and the outlines of individuals were preserved, the pyroclastic flows saved entire structures, along with hundreds of skeletons of the inhabitants.
Archaeologists examining some of those skeletons have determined how they died. According to their research, the extreme heat from the pyroclastic flows put them through a sort of flash-cremation process. The evidence gathered from the skeletons “suggests the rapid vaporization of body fluids and soft tissues of people at death due to exposure to extreme heat,” according to a .
The end result is that the victims had their blood boil, their flesh melt away, and of course many suffered from something the researchers called “recurrent skull explosion,” which is about as terrifying as it sounds. Many of the skulls recovered at the site had fractures or entire pieces missing, likely caused by the force of their brains and blood vessels boiling away inside their heads.
While this sounds horrifying, the researchers do point out that dying this way must have been extremely quick. The specific cause of death the researchers identify is called “sudden body fluid vaporization,” and it likely killed its victims in seconds. There’s no peaceful way to die during a volcanic eruption, but at least the residents of Herculaneum didn’t suffer for very long. You know, before their heads exploded.