Archaeology: ‘Extraordinary’ discovery of 2,000-year brain cells in Mount Vesuvius victim

The eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD has provided archaeologists with a myriad of wonders over the years. Studies have, for instance, found the eruption’s victims were baked to death, while others exploded due to the intense heat. Scientists have also found the heat was so immense it had turned one victim’s brain into glass.

And according to a new study published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists have discovered preserved brain tissue within this “glassy material”.

With the aid of powerful electron microscopes, the study also uncovered intact nerve cells in the body’ spinal cord, which has also been turned into glass.

Study co-author Pier Paulo Petrone of the University Federico II of Naples said: “The discovery of brain tissue in ancient human remains is an unusual event.

“But what is extremely rare is the integral preservation of neuronal structures of a 2,000-years-ago central nervous system, in our case at an unprecedented resolution.

“These and other results of the bioanthropological and volcanological investigations underway at Herculaneum are gradually bringing to light details never before highlighted, which enrich the complex picture of events of the most famous of the Vesuvius eruptions.”

Mount Vesuvius erupted almost 2,000 years ago in the Bay of Naples on Italy’s western coast.

The stratovolcano is located just 5.6 miles (nine kilometres) from the modern-day Naples and is responsible for one of the biggest natural cataclysms in the history of the Roman Empire.

In 79 AD, the volcano erupted and wiped out the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae.

The eruption is estimated to have ejected a monstrous cloud of volcanic ash, smoke, gases and stone, up to 21 miles (33km) into the sky.

The glassified remains examined in the new study were recovered in the 1960s at the archaeological site of Herculaneum.

The remains belonged to a man around the age of 20 who was found splayed out on a wooden bed.

The intense heat and rapid cooling following Vesuvius’s eruption led to a natural instance of vitrification – the transformation of a substance into glass.

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According to the study, the victim’s central nervous system “was ‘frozen’ in its native condition, preserving intact remnant cell structures in the neuronal tissue”.

Study co-author Guido Giordano, a volcanologist at the University of Roma Tre, said: “The extraordinary discovery of perfectly preserved ancient neuronal structures has been induced by the conversion of human tissue into glass, which is indicative of the rapid cooling of the hot volcanic ash clouds that hit Herculaneum at the beginning of the eruption.”

An analysis of charred wood discovered near to the man’s remains found the site hit temperatures of more than 500C (932F) after the blast.

Herculaneum was then buried under pyroclastic flows of hot gas and volcanic matter, causing temperatures to drop down to about 350C (662F).

The conditions allowed for the man’s brain to naturally turn into glass, as there was likely some time between the eruption and flows.

The study reads: “Vitrification is a natural process that occurs when a liquid drops below its glass transition temperature, which depends largely on the cooling rate and the viscosity of the liquid.

“The preservation of this vitrified material implies that the brain was not destroyed during exposure to the hot pyroclastic flows and that time was allowed for its rapid cooling and transformation into glass before the final burial beneath further meters of hot pyroclastic debris.

“This indicates that some time-gaps must have occurred during the sequence of pyroclastic flow events that progressively hit and buried the town, as also recently suggested at Pompeii.”

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