Monday, 5 October 2015

Pompeii's victims didn't suffocate

Plaster cost of a body at Pompeii known as the muleteer. This cast led historians to believe that the victims asphyxiated, as he appears to be covering his nose and mouth from the fumes.

For many decades, historians have accepted the theory that the victims of Pompeii asphyxiated due to the toxic fumes emitted from the volcanic eruption. This was believed to explain why the casts of the victims’ bodies often depicted them seemingly holding up their hands to cover their nose and mouth. But, a relatively recent study carried out by Dr Peter Baxter from the University of Cambridge suggests otherwise. He believes that the victims instead suffered from ‘thermal shock’. This occurs when humans are exposed to temperatures above which they can survive at (above 200˚C). Here, a person’s muscles and body tissues greatly shorten, so that they are then permanently fixed in that position even after death. This creates a ‘boxer-like’ pose which is known as a pugilistic attitude, that several of the body casts at Pompeii possess and which led Dr Baxter to question the original theory.

Tests were carried out by scientists upon the proposition of this new idea. Ancient bones from Pompeii had a yellow colour. Modern bones were heated to high temperatures between 250 and 300˚C, upon which these too became a pale yellow colour, proving that the victims of Vesuvius’ eruption were subjected to these temperatures. This temperature would have come from the direct heat of the pyroclastic surge combined with the heat from the ash and killed the victims extremely quickly (within a second). Therefore, they would not have had time to suffocate from the ash.

Dr Petrone is another historian who disagrees with the theory of death by suffocation. He discounts this because: ‘the typical body posture of a suffocated person is a floppy body, mostly standing in an unnatural position, just the opposite of the ‘life-like’ stance of most of the victims found in Pompeii.’

This plaster cast displays a pugilistic attitude, leading Dr Baxter to suggest that the victims of Vesuvius did not die from asphyxiation.


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