Intact brain cells found in historic city of Herculaneum: “Most spectacular discovery” around the eruption of Vesuvius

In Italy, researchers have found completely intact brain cells in the skull of a young man’s corpse. It died in 79 AD in the infamous eruption of the volcano Vesuvius. It concerns the disaster in which the historic cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were covered with a layer of lava and ash and thousands of people died. Because of that volcanic material, large parts of the cities could be preserved.


Among the thousands of victims of the eruption of Vesuvius was a young man about 25 years old. Like the other townspeople, he didn’t have time to flee the lava flow that spewed Vesuvius. Archaeologists have already found his remains around a wooden bed in Herculaneum in the 1960s. The man lay face down in a building in honor of Emperor Augustus.

“Most spectacular discovery yet”


Modern analysis of the skull now shows that the young man’s brain cells are still completely intact. Several scientists speak of “the most spectacular discovery yet” in the area where archaeological excavations are taking place continuously.

Pier Paolo Petrone, the forensic anthropologist who led the investigation, told US broadcaster CNN that he saw “some glassy material shining from the skull.” That happened in 2018 when he was working not far from the skeleton.

Petrone’s team then discovered that the sparkle was a result of the vitrification of the late Roman’s brain. This vitrification was caused by the intense heat followed by a rapid cooling by the volcanic ash. The same thing happened to the nerve cells in the victim’s spinal cord. The scientists also found these intact.

More than 500 degrees

Volcanologist Guido Giordano, who collaborated on the study, states that the temperature in Herculaneum was over 500 degrees Celsius shortly after the eruption. This explains the “perfection of conservation” of the brain cells found. According to Giordano, this is of “totally unprecedented” good quality and is a blessing for researchers. “This opens the door to research into that ancient population that was never possible before,” says the volcanologist.

The researchers want to continue their study of vitrification and find out exactly what temperatures the victims were subjected to. They also want to find out how quickly the volcanic ashes cooled everything down again.

“This is critical to the government’s risk assessment of future eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, the world’s most dangerous volcano, which towers over more than three million residents of Naples and the city’s environs,” said Petrone.


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