The Eruption of Vesuvius

The eruption of Vesuvius is categorised into two phases – the Plinian and the Peléan. The first phase was named after Pliny the Younger who was the first to record the phenomenon. It began with an eruption of gas and volcanic materials described by Pliny as being like a pine tree. From this cloud of ash, pumice began to fall and was carried by the wind to fall on Pompeii rather than the closer Herculaneum. By the end of this phase Pompeii had a layer of ash and pumice more than 2.8 metres thick. Because of the weight of the pumice on the roofs they collapsed and so buildings in Pompeii typically only have a single storey. This ash also preserved the death posture of its victims and was used by Giuseppe Fiorelli as moulds in order to see the final death throes of Pompeiian victims. The next phase of the eruption, the Peléan phase, was a series of six pyroclastic surges. All six reached Herculaneum burying it under 20 metres of solid rock and carbonised organic materials such as wopen beams in buildings and bread. The last two surges were the only ones that reached Pompeii so most of it was buried under ash rather than solid rock making excavations easier to conduct that those in Herculaneum. Everyone who stayed in Pompeii and Herculaneum died, although there has been much discussion over causes of their deaths. In the Herculaneum boathouses, it is generally recognised that the blackened skeletons are evidence of incineration and that it was the likely cause of death. In Pompeii a group of bodies identified as priests of Isis because they carried its idols, were killed by falling masonry which was less of a problem in Herculaneum. For a long time asphyxiation was considered to be the cause of death for many Pompeiians and evidence from the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens confirms this theory. The pugilist pose, evidence of death by thermal shock found through bone casts by Fiorelli in Pompeii is another cause of death from the eruption. Pompeii and Herculaneum experienced different aspects of Vesuvius’s eruption resulting in different causes of deaths and different objects being preserved.


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