Heat from Mount Vesuvius Eruption in A.D. 79 Turned One Victim’s Brain to Glass

Fragments of the glassy black material extracted from the victim’s skull cavity. Testing revealed that this material was vitrified brain tissue.
New England Journal of Medicine

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, the towering ash from the volcano wiped out life in Pompeii, Italy, and the surrounding area. Nearly 2,000 years later, all that remains of the victims are the striking body casts of the people who once lived there, and bones.

What you won’t find is flesh or blood — soft tissue or liquids were either vaporized in the heat of the eruption, or decayed away over the millennia.

That makes an Italian team of researchers’ findings, published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine, all the more surprising: A victim, found lying on a wooden bed buried in volcanic ash in the town of Herculaneum… and his brain.

“The preservation of ancient brain remains is an extremely rare find,” said lead author Dr. Pier Paola Petrone, head of the human osteobiology and forensic anthropology laboratory at the University of Naples Federico II in Italy. “This is the first ever discovery of ancient human brain remains, vitrified by heat.”

Vitrification is the process through which a material is heated to an extremely high temperature until it liquifies, and then cooled rapidly, leading to the formation of a glass-like material.

That’s how the brain was found — in glass-like fragments.

The victim’s remains were discovered in the 1960s but the materials in his skull had not been analyzed. The victim — a male about 25 years old — was lying facedown in the volcanic ash, Petrone told NBC News in an email. The intense heat from the eruption had burst open the skull, exposing the “shining black glassy material” within, he said.

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SOURCE: NBC News, Sara G. Miller