Escaping Pompeians died of asphyxiation when Mount Vesuvius erupted

Escaping Pompeians died of asphyxiation when Mount Vesuvius erupted

Pompeii is an extraordinary encyclopedia of antiquity that raises many certainties about daily life two millennia ago and also numerous questions, particularly about the events of the day of the catastrophe. Doubts are being dispelled more and more with the help of science and non-invasive study methods that allow us, without altering the preserved remains, to travel to that fateful autumn day in 79, when Vesuvius awoke and began to roar furiously.

More information

One of the questions experts have asked most often is how the inhabitants of Pompeii, frozen forever in time, died under the tons of volcanic material that has preserved the tormenting details of those dramatic moments.

With the organic matter gone and now only the skeleton remaining, the corpses left an imprint in the petrified ash, which archaeologists later filled with plaster to obtain casts of the bodies that allow for the exact pose they were in at the site real scale have been reproduced. They were when they died and they offer a devastating picture of the victims of the tragedy.

A group of researchers led by the University of Valencia have for the first time, using non-invasive techniques based on chemical analysis using X-rays, examined the bones of some of these fossilized refugees, such as the Pompeians who tried to flee the volcano Fury And he concluded that they died from asphyxiation and not from burns or dehydration as other theories claim.

Variously dead in eruption

Gianni Gallello, coordinator of the investigation, told EL PAÍS that the study relates to a specific group of victims and that the population died in the outbreak in different ways depending on where they were, more or less not far away Vesuvius. So died the inhabitants of Herculaneum, another of the destroyed cities, closest to the volcano, probably burned by pyroclastic waves with a temperature of more than 500 degrees.

In Pompeii, researchers from the Spanish University, in collaboration with Cambridge University and the Italian Ministry of Culture, analyzed the remains of six people who fled the Porta Nola area and one person who stayed in the Suburban Baths area. And they concluded that they probably died from inhaling toxic gases from the volcano while attempting to escape. After collapsing lifeless, their bodies were covered in ash and other volcanic material in no time. Several were found under a ten-foot layer of lapilli and debris from collapsing buildings.

In addition to the analysis of the bones, the position of the body, relaxed or stretched, also confirms this theory. Some victims are even covered in scraps of cloth and clothing, suggesting temperatures weren’t high enough to cremate them.

The scientists point out that these people tried to flee the city when the lapilli rains stopped, which had turned the ground into a kind of black hail carpet composed of solid lava fragments. Walking on such a surface is not easy, so the escapees used improvised sticks made of branches to move faster, but after a false rest, they were surprised by the second phase of the eruption, which was already exhausted. Lasting several minutes, it formed a toxic cloud that blanketed Pompeii, leaving an irreversible concentration of ash and volcanic gases in the air that killed it about 20 hours after the initial eruption, researchers said.

Gianni Gallello explains that the extreme heat from the pyroclastic waves and magma flows arrived after the victims had already died. The bones have shown that the bodies were exposed to the effects of high temperatures postmortem, with results similar to those seen in cremation.

Researchers began separating the bones that had not been contaminated by the lime used for the molds in 2019. They then analyzed them to get information about the thermal shock they experienced and to find out if the extreme heat affected them during or after death. To do this, they crossed data and compared the samples from Pompeii with other cremated bones from the Ostian necropolis in Rome of the same period and from another necropolis in Valencia with uncremated bone remains. “The bones of the uncontaminated tracks showed similar properties to the cremated remains in the rituals of the Romans in ancient Rome,” says Gallello.

View of snow-capped Mount Vesuvius in an image from the ancient archaeological ruins of Pompeii near Naples (Italy).View of snow-capped Mount Vesuvius in an image from the ancient archaeological ruins of Pompeii near Naples (Italy). Cesare Abbate (AP)

The scientist has published a detailed article on the research in the journal Plos One, which he co-authored with Llorenç Alapont, a researcher at the same university, and other colleagues from other institutions.

The researcher from the University of Valencia points out that it is the first time that the skeletons of the inhabitants of Pompeii found in the plaster casts have been studied, which he defines as “a photocopy of the moment of death” using an innovative technique non-invasive. They combined chemical analysis with X-ray fluorescence analysis, as well as anthropological and taphonomic studies (the study of the fossilization process). “This study puts all the pieces of the puzzle together and provides information that isn’t visible to the naked eye,” Gallello says, noting that the research created a low-cost protocol of action that opens the door for other studies looking at people examine remains from sites other than the cities destroyed by the volcano to verify whether the pattern they have discovered changes or is maintained and why.

The researcher emphasizes the value of Pompeii for science. “Life ended and was immortalized in that cataclysmic episode of unprecedented proportions. We are not facing a chronological event that stretches over years like in other places, in Pompeii something very concrete is seen: what happened in people’s lives in just a few hours.” And he adds: “It’s an intact past in the present.”

All the culture that goes with it awaits you here.

subscribe to


The literary novelties analyzed by the best critics in our weekly bulletin


Subscribe to continue reading

Read without limits