Friday, February 14, 2020

The latest on the eruption of Vesuvius

THE ERUPTION OF MOUNT VESUVIUS IN 79 CE has been in the news lately. I have collected some recent stories in this post.

First, Bible History Daily reports on The Survivors of Mount Vesuvius Steven L. Tuck finds evidence of those who lived through the eruption at Pompeii and Herculaneum. An article by Professor Tuck is in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Alas it is available only to subscribers. But I had a post on his work last year: Tracing the survivors of Vesuvius.

Second, there has been some more work on that skull that may belong to Pliny the Elder himself: This 2,000-Year-Old Skull May Belong to Pliny the Elder. The Roman statesman launched a rescue mission when Vesuvius erupted but lost his life in the process (Katherine J. Wu, Smithsonian Magazine). DNA analysis of the skull gives us some new information about the owner which is still consistent with him being Pliny.

I have a post on the skull story from 2017 here. The current story allays one of my concerns: the body under investigation was in fact buried in a mass grave, just as we would have expected of Pliny's body. I remain skeptical of the identification, because I still think Pliny's friends would have kept his jewelry and sword to give back to his family, especially if he was being buried in a comparatively easily-looted mass grave.

That said, I am not a specialist in ancient Roman burial practices and I don't know what evidence we have about the disposition of personal valuables in such circumstances. If you are an expert and have a view, please drop me a note.

This article also leads me to correct an earlier comment. I noted that Pliny's rescue mission may have saved as many as two thousand people, which I misunderstood to be about half the death toll of the eruption. In fact, the current estimate of that toll is about 16,000. So Pliny's mission only saved at most the equivalent of half the death toll at Pompeii.


If you have to die, that's still an impressive achievement to die at.

Third, more evidence has emerged of the grim effects of the eruption's fatal pyroclastic surge (see bottom of this post): Vesuvius eruption baked some people to death—and turned one brain to glass. A pair of studies reveals more details about what happened to the victims of the infamous event in A.D. 79. (ROBIN GEORGE ANDREWS, National Geographic).
One concludes that those taking cover in the town’s boathouses were not really burned or vaporized, but instead baked as if inside a stone oven. The second has found a victim in a different portion of the city whose brain appears to have melted before being frozen into glass, as if afflicted by sorcery.
Follow the link for photos of the glass brain fragments.

Perhaps I watch too much SciFi (well, probably), but this story made me think of Dennis Potter's last series, Cold Lazarus. I realize that Daniel Feeld's brain was frozen, not vitrified. Vitrified brain is not going to have any structure left in it. But the article does say that the brain glass contains chemical traces. Who knows what information about first-century Roman brain composition the data-recovery technology of 2368 might recover from it?

For many past posts on efforts by scientists to gain access to the text of the carbonized scrolls from the library of Herculaneum (also destroyed by Vesuvius), start here and follow the links. And for many other posts on the eruption of Vesuvius, start here and follow the links.

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