Study of Vesuvius Victim's Skull Reveals a Surprise

Researchers say his brain turned to glass
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 23, 2020 10:00 AM CST
Updated Jan 26, 2020 2:45 PM CST
Vesuvius May Have Turned Victim's Brain to Glass
The snow-covered peak of the Mount Vesuvius volcano is seen in the background of ancient ruins of the archaeological excavations of Pompeii, near Naples, southern Italy, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019.   (Cesare Abbate/ANSA via AP)

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius may have most famously destroyed Pompeii, but the nearby town of Herculaneum endured a similar fate. Now a new study suggests that at least one of the town's residents suffered a remarkable, if grisly, fate: His brain essentially turned to glass, reports Live Science. The study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that a process known as vitrification took place—heat liquified the man's brain, which then turned to glass upon rapid cooling, explains National Geographic. What caused the rapid cooling is unclear, but the heat part is pretty straightforward: Charred wood suggests the man's room (he was found in bed) hit 968 degrees Fahrenheit. “It's the very first time that vitrified brain remains have been found,” researcher Pier Paolo Petrone of the University of Naples Federico II tells the Washington Post.

His team came to the conclusion after studying the skull of the victim, whose remains were discovered in the 1960s. "I saw something shining inside the head, and it was these small, glassy black fragments that were just attached inside the skull," says Petrone. Further research revealed that the glassy fragments held brain matter. A gruesome footnote: Petrone says the discovery backs up his previous theory that Vesuvius victims died in particularly awful fashion: Steam from boiling blood created pressure that caused their heads to explode. However, National Geographic (which couldn't resist a line of "mind blowing ... if true") notes that skepticism remains about that particular theory: "All that can be said is that this may be what happened around the time of their death." (A Pompeii dig recently revealed a "sorcerer's treasure trove" in the ancient Roman city.)

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