A recent study has come out suggesting that the catastrophic explosion from Mount Vesuvius caused a man’s brain to turn to literal glass.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, which wiped out settlements including Pompeii and Herculaneum in blasts of molten rock and ash, destroyed countless Roman settlements near modern-day Naples.
Analysis of one skull, recovered from the Herculaneum site in the 1960s, shows something very interesting: the brain matter that was vitrified, or turned into glass.
While other remains at the site were found to have been saponified – turned into a soap-like substance – this is the first time that the glass idea has been put forward.
A study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday, said fragments of a glassy, black material were extracted from the frontal lobe area.
Vitrification, the study says, is the process by which material is burned at a high heat and cooled rapidly, turning it into glass or a glaze.
“The preservation of ancient brain remains is an extremely rare find,” said Dr Pier Paola Petrone, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Naples Federico II and lead author of the study.
“This is the first ever discovery of ancient human brain remains vitrified by heat.”
Temperatures at the site could have been as high as 520 degrees Celsius (968 degrees Fahrenheit), based on an analysis of nearby charred wood.
Herculaneum, pictured here, was buried by volcanic matter from the Vesuvius (seen in the distant background) eruption
The remains are estimated to be from a 25-year-old male, who was found lying on a wooden bed, covered in volcanic ash, and is thought to have been a caretaker for the Collegium Augustalium building he was found in.
ScienceAlert reports, “It’s tricky to know exactly what happened, but there’s no doubt this would have felt like a truly apocalyptic moment, as high-speed pyroclastic surges of gas and rock were rapidly followed by waves of volcanic ash. If you lived in Pompeii or Herculaneum, you wouldn’t have really stood a chance.
Peering back so far in time, and at such an unusual event, requires a lot of educated guesswork, and so it must be noted that not everyone agrees with the brain-into-glass theory.”
Archaeologists have been investigating the remains of Herculaneum, and Pompeii – the other famous Roman settlement destroyed by Vesuvius – for centuries. It seems there is still much to learn.