Scientists discover vitrified remains caused by immense 520C heat of disaster in AD79
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79, the damage wreaked in nearby towns was catastrophic. Now it appears the heat was so immense it turned one victim’s brain to glass – thought to be the first time this has been seen.
Experts say they have discovered that splatters of a shiny, solid black material found inside the skull of a victim at Herculaneum appear to be the remains of human brain tissue transformed by heat.
They say the find is remarkable since brain tissue is rarely preserved at all due to decomposition, and where it is found it has typically turned to soap.
“To date, vitrified remains of the brain have never been found,” said Dr Pier Paolo Petrone, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Naples Federico II and a co-author of the study.
Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Petrone and colleagues reveal that the glassy brains belonged to a man of about 25 who was found in the 1960s lying face-down on a wooden bed under a pile of volcanic ash – a pose that suggests he was asleep when disaster struck the town.
The bed was in a small room that was part of the Collegium Augustalium, a building relating to an imperial cult that worshipped the former emperor Augustus. The victim, according to Petrone, is believed to have been the caretaker.
Petrone said it was when he recently focused his research on human remains found at the college that he noticed the black fragments in the caretaker’s skull.
“I noticed something shining inside the head ,” he told . “This material was preserved exclusively in the victim’s skull, thus it had to be the vitrified remains of the brain. But it had to be proved beyond any reasonable doubt.”
Now Petrone and colleagues have revealed a number of substances within the glassy material, including proteins typically found in brain tissue. Crucially, these were not found in adjacent ash or elsewhere in the site.
“The detection of glassy material from the victim’s head, of proteins expressed in human brain, and of fatty acids found in human hair indicates the thermally induced preservation of vitrified human brain tissue,” the team write.
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