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Within hours, a cloud of hot volcanic ash swept down the side of the famous Italian volcano, raced over the countryside, and smothered the town, along with nearby Pompeii. Hundreds died. Two new studies reveal, in gruesome detail, what happened to their bodies when the hot ash arrived.

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Perhaps, says biological anthropologist Tim Thompson at Teesside University, people gathered near these vaults in the ultimately futile hope they could launch boats into the Bay of Naples and escape. But at Herculaneum, just skeletons remain. Because of this, researchers had thought that immediately after death, the hot ash caused body fluids and tissue to vaporize rapidly, exposing the skeleton to direct burning.

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But one new study contradicts that idea. Thompson and his colleagues analyzed rib samples from more than skeletons in the Herculaneum boat houses.

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Surprisingly, the bones still contained high levels of collagen, a protein that breaks down relatively readily when bones are burned. So it was unlikely that these bones experienced much or even any burning. He and colleagues speculate that the people trapped inside the boat houses did indeed die quickly, either from heat exposure or suffocation. Afterward, their bodies began to cook. Skin and muscles swelled, driving moisture from soft tissue inward toward the bone.

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As the team argues today in Antiquitythis would have baked the skeleton without burning it. It may seem that making such a distinction is of only ghoulish interest, but Thompson says there is real value in understanding the ways in which bodies respond to heat. Doing so could, for instance, provide new information for forensic scientists attempting to identify bodies in the aftermath of a modern volcanic disaster.

He has also examined Herculaneum skeletons in the past. But most show really limited s of thermal alteration. Pierpaolo Petrone, a physical and forensic anthropologist at the University of Naples Federico II, has advocated the vaporization idea.

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But he says he never meant the term to imply the stripping away of flesh within seconds. A body would need at least 20 minutes of exposure to hot volcanic ash to be reduced to a skeleton, he says—and potentially far longer in cases where people are huddled together as they were in the boat houses. In those situations, the effects of the heat may well have been less severe, he says. But Petrone argues that some bodies elsewhere at Herculaneum do show s of dramatic thermal trauma. Over the years, he has noticed that a few of the remains he has helped excavate at the site have skulls showing starlike patterns of fractures radiating from a central point.

Inside one such skull, Petrone and colleagues have now discovered a glassy black substance that contains chemical atures of enzymes that are expressed in the human brain. This may then have been protected from decay by the volcanic ash that entombed the body. By Jennifer Couzin-Frankel Jul. By Science News Staff Jul. By Jeffrey Mervis Jul. All rights Reserved.

Skeletons in one of the boat houses in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum. A fragment of glassy residue found inside one human skull, which may be the remains of the brain. Got a tip? How to contact the news team.

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