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Extreme heat from Mount Vesuvius' volcanic eruption in 79 AD turned a man's brains into glass, a new study suggested.
The eruption killed thousands of citizens living in the nearby Roman settlements. One such settlement was the town of Herculaneum, where many of its residents were entombed, including this glassy-brained victim.
The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday.
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One victim with glass for brains
One particular victim's remains of the eruption, a man believed to have been in his mid-twenties at the time, have been studied by a team of researchers from the University of Naples Federico II.
Among the recent finds at Herculaneum was tissue residue that could be identified by chemical methods as vitrified brain tissue. https://t.co/frngkyLA4U— NEJM (@NEJM) January 23, 2020
The remains were unearthed in Herculaneum in the 1960s.
Researchers of the study believe that the black shiny glass fragments found in the victim's skull are the vitrified remains of his brain.
Vitrification occurs when a material is burnt rapidly at high heat and then cools down quickly, turning it into glass or a glaze.
Lead author of the study and a forensic anthropologist at the University of Naples Federico II, Pier Paolo Petrone said "The preservation of ancient brain remains is an extremely rare find."
Petrone continued "This is the first ever discovery of ancient human brain remains vitrified by heat."
The team discovered the victim's remains "lying on a wooden bed, buried by volcanic ash", said Petrone. Analyzing charred wood near the victim allowed the team to know that a maximum temperature of 520 degrees Celcius (968 Fahrenheit) was reached.
Thanks to this discovery, the study noted that "extreme radiant heat was able to ignite body fat and vaporize soft tissues", before a "rapid drop in temperature."
"The detection of glassy material from the victim's head, of proteins expressed in human brain, and of fatty acids found in human hair indicates the thermally induced preservation of vitrified human brain tissue," explained the study.
So far, no other glassy remnants have been found at the archaeological site.
Petrone and his team hope to discover more information about the victim thanks to the glass fragment. He told the Agence France-Presse "If we manage to reheat the material, liquefy it, we could maybe find this individual’s DNA."