It has been nearly 2,000 years since Mount Vesuvius’ eruption buried the vibrant Roman city of Pompeii under a deadly blanket of ash.
The eerie ruins and famous casts of Pompeii provide an invaluable insight into the dramatic event. However, one of the most pressing questions of this day remains: What exactly was the cause of death of the victims?
Using a new research and technology method, a European team led by the University of Valencia has found that a number of the fossilized Pompeians died from asphyxiation – and not from dehydration or heat as previously thought.
Researchers performed the first non-invasive chemical analysis on six casts, using for the first time portable X-ray fluorescence equipment, to reveal the elemental composition of the bones. They then compared the results to other cremated bone samples from the Ostiense necropolis in Rome and to buried bones from the Colata Islamic necropolis in Valencia.
Bone analysis results aren’t the only clue pointing to asphyxiation. Another fact supporting the theory is the posture of the victims – they appear relaxed, lying or stretched out, some even covering themselves with clothing.
The researchers suspect that these six people tried to flee Pompeii after the rains on small tephra rocks stopped. They were killed by the second phase of the eruption, which released high concentrations of ash and toxic volcanic gases. Bone finds also show that the individuals were only postmortem exposed to the extreme temperatures of pyroclastic waves and lava – resulting in an effect similar to that of cremation.
It is estimated that the six Pompeians lost their lives around 20 hours after the initial eruption.
According to the team, the research results can not only help reconstruct the events surrounding the deaths of these individuals, but also shed light on other causes of death when Mount Vesuvius erupted. This is especially important as the choke proposal is limited to the six samples. It is likely that the cataclysmic event killed people in a variety of ways.
The study is another example of how advanced technologies are leading us into a new era of archaeological knowledge and preservation of cultural heritage. think of excavation robot, or the use of space technology for documentation and discovery of historical sites.
Business opportunities are also emerging as a significant number of European start-ups are active in this not yet crowded area. A notable example is the UK-based company ArchAI, founded by archaeologist and computer scientist Iris Kramer. The company uses AI models to automatically identify archaeological sites based on Earth observation data.