Preserved Brain Cells Found in Herculaneum Victim of Vesuvius Volcano Eruption in 79 AD

Preserved Brain Cells Found in Herculaneum Victim of Vesuvius Volcano Eruption in 79 AD

The excavated ruins of the Ancient Roman city of Herculaneum with the Mount Vesuvius volcano in the background. Photo: Wikipedia

Remarkably well preserved glassified brain cells have been discovered in the remains of a young man who perished in the eruption of famous volcano Mount Vesuvius back in 79 AD, which at the time famously destroyed the major Ancient Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, and Stabiae in Southern Italy.

The best known eruption of the Mount Vesuvius volcano nearly 2,000 years ago buried Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other nearby settlements under a thick layer of ash and volcanic fragments, preserving them more or less intact, and offering an incredible glimpse into the life of Ancient Roman society at the time.

The most famous victim of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the city of Pompeii, is estimated to have had a population of 20,000 people.

Nearby Herculaneum was a smaller town. However, it is believed to have been wealthier and a popular seaside resort for the Roman elite.

Not unlike Pompeii, Vesuvius’ eruption covered Herculaneum in a toxic layer of volcanic ash, gases and lava flow which then turned to stone, encasing the city, allowing an extraordinary degree of frozen-in-time preservation both of city structures and of residents who were unable to run away.

The exceptionally well-preserved brain cells have been found in the remains of a young man, around 20 years of age, who was killed in Herculaneum by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, reveals an Italian study published in US peer-reviewed academic journal PLOS ONE.

The Italian researchers have found the preserved neuronal structures in vitrified or frozen form as part of the remains of a 79 AD Mount Vesuvius eruption victim, which themselves were discovered in the 1960s on a wooden bed in Herculaneum.

A depiction of the remains of the 20-year-old Roman as they were found in the ruins of Herculaneum back in 1961. Photo: Plos One journal

A map showing the Ancient Roman cities destroyed by the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius volcano back in 79 AD. Map: Wikipedia

“The study of vitrified tissue as the one we found at Herculaneum… may save lives in future,” study lead author Pier Paolo Petrone, forensic anthropologist at Naples’ University Federico II, says, as cited by AFP and France24.

“The experimentation continues on several research fields, and the data and information we are obtaining will allow us to clarify other and newer aspects of what happened 2000 years ago during the most famous eruption of Vesuvius,” Petrone adds.

In the study, the Italian researcher explains that the extreme heat of the volcano eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the ensuing rapid cooling turned the brain material of the young Ancient Roman man from Herculaneum into a glassy material, freezing the neuronal structures and leaving them intact.

“The evidence of a rapid drop of temperature – witnessed by the vitrified brain tissue – is a unique feature of the volcanic processes occurring during the eruption, as it could provide relevant information for possible interventions by civil protection authorities during the initial stages of a future eruption,” Petrone writes.

While the Italian researchers investigated the Ancient Roman organic material, they succeeded in obtaining unprecedented high resolution imagery using scanning electron microscopy and advanced image processing tools.

The post-eruption preservation kept the cellular structure of the Vesuvius victim’s central nervous system.

They have taken seized the opportunity “to study possibly the best known example in archaeology of extraordinarily well-preserved human neuronal tissue from the brain and spinal cord."

The devastation caused by the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius volcano in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and their region is known from the eyewitness account of Roman poet and administrator Pliny the Younger (61 – ca. 113 AD), and occurred some time after October 17, 79.

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