The explosion took place at noon. Almost the entire city had evacuated, but when a boiling volcanic wave reached the city around midnight, the 25-year-old temple guard was asleep. – We assume so, because he was lying belly down on the bed. What else was he supposed to do on the night of 79 AD? After all, he did not watch TV – Pier Paolo Petrone ironies. He and a group of scientists have just discovered perfectly preserved fragments of the nervous system in the remains of a victim of the Vesuvius eruption. – This is the only material of this type in the world – boasts Petrone.
On August 24, 79, an eruption of an Italian volcano destroyed three historic cities: Stabiae, Herculaneum and Pompeii. A wave of heat, dust and gas with a temperature of several hundred degrees Celsius literally burned all living organisms in this area. After the eruption, a thick layer of a mixture of ash and rock fell on the remains of the buildings and covered the bodies of the victims.
This gray “duvet” helped to preserve many of the treasures that remain in the area to this day and regularly give Italian archaeologists a reason to be proud. The most recent discovery, which researchers from Naples has just published, is that of examining the remains of a 25-year-old victim of the blast.
In the brain fragments that Pietrone had begun to analyze as early as 2018, researchers found perfectly preserved nerve cells of a young man who lived in Herculaneum almost 2,000 years ago.
“When I was cleaning the skull I saw something glistening”
The head of a group of researchers from Naples boasts that no one has ever done anything similar before. “We discovered all the beauty of the central nervous system there: neurons, axons. Not only in the brain, but also in the victim’s spinal cord. I have been extracting and investigating hundreds of victims of explosions for over 20 years. This is a very important moment in my career – says Pier Paolo Petrone, an anthropology expert from the University of Naples, in an interview with tvn24.pl. Frederick II.
And he emphasizes: the discovery did not happen overnight. He began to study this particular skeleton from Herculaneum several years ago. In 2018, he came across previously unseen black fragments of material he did not know at the time. – The victim’s body was charred. The debris, as well as the bed they were lying on, were covered in volcanic ash. Suddenly, as I was cleaning the skull, I saw something glistening inside it. As if the fragments of black glass, in the place where the human brain is – reports Petrone.
– It looked like obsidian [skała ze szkliwa wulkanicznego – red.]but it was much more fragile, it was easily damaged. I began to suspect that it might be parts of the brain, because it was only in the skull, nowhere else – he says.
He collected material for research. In January this year, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results that confirmed his assumptions: the glistening material was the brain of an inhabitant of Herculaneum. How is it possible that it is preserved in such good condition? The vitrification process helped, in other words: the vitrification of the material.
The rapid increase in temperature “vitrified” the brain. Only this one victim
– Vitrification is a commonly used procedure in medical biology. It is used for tissues on which you want to experiment later. They are immersed in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -190 degrees. The rapid transition from room temperature to such a low temperature makes the material preservable, the researcher explains.
As he says, the vitrification process can take place as a result of rapid heating or cooling. In the case of the body of an inhabitant of Herculaneum, it was first a sudden jump, and then a rapid drop in heat. When the heat wave reached Herculaneum, it was around 500 degrees Celsius. – But in Pompeii it was already cooler, about 300 degrees. Therefore, the remains excavated from these two sites are preserved differently, explains Petrone.
All the more valuable is the latest discovery. Because not only are there so well-preserved victims of an ancient volcanic eruption in any other place in the world (or at least they have not been discovered yet), the brain of the 25-year-old from Herculaneum is the only brain of Vesuvius victims that underwent the vitrification process. – The other known bodies were found to have a lower temperature, we did not find similar traces in any of the skulls – emphasizes Petrone.
“Only in this one man, in this one place only,” he says.
A small window, a door, a wooden bed
We ask what else he can say about the examined man.
– It was discovered in 1961 by our master, the then archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri. He unveiled the building where the holidays were held in honor of Emperor Augustus, we know it from the frescoes that are there – he explains.
– In the middle of the temple he found a small room, clearly “glued”, added later. It had a small window, a separate door. You can’t see much today, but we know for sure that there was a wooden bed inside. You can see its remains – says Petrone.
And it was in this bed that the heat wave found the victim.
They knew earthquakes. Outbreak – no
According to the archaeologist, in AD 79, Vesuvius “woke up” on August 24 at noon. First, he surprised the inhabitants of the region with strong earthquakes. There were those who sensed it was the last moment to run away. – But there were also “optimists”, or residents who decided that they would return home for something. In total, it was about 50 people. There is also the possibility that they just wanted to wait out this hard time in their four walls. Maybe they were hoping it would be like 17 years earlier and would end up with an earthquake that destroyed some of their walls in AD 62. They did not know what Vesuvius was capable of, because it did not explode in their time – says Pier Paolo Petrone.
Those who stayed with the rushing wave had no chance. A mixture of several meters of lava, gas and ash killed everyone in a few seconds where it reached them at midnight.
Our 25-year-old was in bed at the time. – He was asleep. We assume so, because it was belly down. What else was he supposed to do on the night of 79 AD? After all, he has not watched TV – laughs Petrone. – We also conclude from the analysis of the remains that he was stocky. He was probably the custodian, the guardian of this place. He died at night, in a few seconds, probably without even realizing it – he adds.
Like all the victims of the 79 eruption of Vesuvius. In the last dozen years of research, Petrone and his colleagues concluded that the direct cause of death was high temperature. – The remains of all several hundred victims show similar features in terms of body position: shrunken arms and legs. These were not deliberate movements, but the effect of unconditional muscle contraction. This confirms that they died within seconds. The incredibly high temperature caused their blood and brains to boil, their skulls cracked, and their bodies froze instantly, the anthropologist believes.
With the difference that in Herculaneum the temperature was so high that it burned skin and muscles immediately, which immediately evaporated, leaving a “naked” skeleton. – Then, volcanic ash clung to the bones as if taking the place of tissue. In Pompeii, in turn, they did not evaporate, so the dust fell on the bodies and hardened on them. Over time, the bodies have been destroyed, all they left behind are “shells” of dust, and inside spaces that were discovered in the 1960s by our “master” Amadeo. He decided to pour them with plaster and in this way created casts of the victims’ bodies that can still be admired today – says Petrone.
Today, three million people live there. “The eruption will come sooner or later”
The fact that in the vitrified brain of an inhabitant of Herculaneum managed to discover perfectly preserved nerve cells, according to our interlocutor, will certainly be useful to local volcanologists.
– The vitrification process is evidence of how quickly the temperature of the pyroclastic material changes [produkty wybuchu wyrzucane na powierzchnię – red.]. A rapid jump in temperature followed by a rapid drop. It is very important, because the activity of Vesuvius is constantly being researched. The eruption will occur sooner or later, maybe we can better prepare for it – says Petrone.
– The volcano area, including Naples, is currently inhabited by about three million people. This is why Vesuvius is so dangerous – he adds.
– I believe that our discovery will also be useful to historians, biologists and neurologists. After all, this is the first time you can look at the human nervous system from 2,000 years ago. I am convinced that this is material for research that will last for many years. The story does not end here, he sums up.
tvn24.pl, Universita Roma Tre
Main photo source: Petrone PP copyright 2020