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Some victims of the A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius may have died when a hot ash cloud boiled their bodily fluids and caused their skulls to explode, a new study argues.
It's an almost unthinkably gruesome method of death. It's also unlikely, according to one expert on heat damage to human remains. Though the victims certainly suffered a fiery demise, exploding skulls and vaporization of tissue is probably a little over the top, said Elżbieta Jaskulska, a biological anthropologist at the University of Warsaw in Poland who was not involved in the new research.
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The Vesuvius victims in question were former residents of Herculaneum, a town even closer to the maw of the volcano than the famous site of Pompeii. When Vesuvius blew its top, it lobbed pumice, spit ash and ultimately spewed a cloud of hot ash and deadly gases called pyroclastic flow. Many in Pompeii were killed by falling debris, said biological anthropologist Kristina Killgrove of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who wrote about the study for Forbes Magazine. Others died in the surges of pyroclastic flow.
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Petrone and his colleagues used mass spectrometry, a method of determining the type of matter in a sample based on the masses of its molecules, to study 103 bone samples from the waterfront chambers and a nearby beach. They were particularly intrigued by a reddish residue that coated some of the bones and skulls.
Their results revealed that the residue was high in iron and iron oxides. These residues, especially on the skulls, suggest "massive heat-induced hemorrhage," the authors wrote in their study, published online Sept. 26 in the journal PLOS ONE. What's more, they added, star-shaped fractures on some of the skulls likely indicate...
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