An Italian archaeologist compared the impact of the AD79 eruption of Vesuvius on Herculaneum – the ancient Roman seaside town near Pompeii – to the dropping of an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima during World War II.
Such was the heat of the pyroclastic surge produced by Vesuvius – which would have been between 400 ° C and 500 ° C – that the brains and blood of the victims of Herculaneum instantly boiled.
“The remains of the victims here were found in a condition similar to those in Hiroshima,” said Domenico Camardo, archaeologist at the Herculaneum Conservation Project. “You really get a feel for the horror and the tragedy. “
Camardo was speaking as the partially mutilated remains of a Vesuvius victim, found on what would have been the ancient city’s beach in October, were shown to the press on Wednesday.
Archaeologists believe the man, who is believed to be between 40 and 45, was killed just steps from the sea as he tried to flee the eruption.
The man appeared to have grasped what experts said was a small leather bag containing a wooden box, from which protrudes a ring, possibly made of iron or bronze.
“Maybe he was escaping with his treasures,” said Nunzia Laino, a conservator who will be part of the team that will analyze the remains once they are transferred to a lab. “The objects found with human remains are of particular complexity. There are also scraps of fabric, so they will need to be carefully extracted before you can do any studies. “
The bones of the victim were also a reddish color, which according to Francesco Sirano, director of the archaeological park of Herculaneum, was the mark of the stains left by the human blood.
The discovery was made during the first archaeological excavations at Herculaneum, a site much smaller and less known than neighboring Pompeii, in nearly three decades.
Excavations in the 1980s and 1990s uncovered the well-preserved skeletons of more than 300 victims crammed into boathouses, where they would have taken refuge while waiting to be rescued by sea.
The remains of a soldier, believed to have been in the army of Pliny the Elder, the commander of the Roman navy who tried to save the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum, were found in the 1980s, in proximity to the most recent find.
Camardo said the eruption of Vesuvius hit Herculaneum in a different way than Pompeii.
“This is the crucial difference between the two,” he added. “Pompeii was destroyed by a rain of ash and lapillus, which buried it three or four meters. Instead, Herculaneum was first destroyed by the pyroclastic cloud with a temperature of over 400 degrees. It burned trees, people and other life forms.
The town was then hit “by six waves of volcanic mud which came in like a flood and froze it under almost 20 meters of material,” Camardo added. “But this flow of mud, which then hardened, allowed the conservation of all the organic relics, because the oxygen was not able to filter through …
Herculaneum, which was rediscovered during the digging of a well in the early 18th century, is said to have been richer than Pompeii, and sumptuous villas decorated with frescoes and mosaic floors – including the Maison du bicentenaire, discovered in 1938 – have been searched.
The excavations were particularly difficult because the site is located under the modern city of the same name. Other finds have included organic material from fruits and bread as well as wooden furniture and ancient scrolls that have been charred by heat and ashes.
Wooden furniture from houses and shops, as well as an inscription that belonged to a temple dedicated to the goddess of Venus, were also discovered during the last excavations of the beach.
Sirano expects to find the remains of other victims as the excavations continue. Part of the beach currently being excavated is expected to be open to the public in 2024.