Brain cells of 2,000-year-old Vesuvius victim are found intact after heat from the volcanic eruption turned his brain into GLASS

  • Experts reexamined remains of a man who died in the Mount Vesuvius eruption
  • They found splatters of a shiny, black material that was once the man’s brain
  • Electron microscope analysis reveals it contains preserved neurons 
  •  Brain was vitrified when eruption caused temperatures to soar to more than 500°C and then rapidly cooled 

Preserved brain cells of a young man who died in the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD have been found. 

The neurons have been spotted in a unique black glass material inside his skull, which experts said was previously his brain that had been vitrified by the eruption. 

In an archaeological anomaly, heat from the disaster was so intense, and the cooling so rapid, that it turned the man’s grey matter into a shiny obsidian-like material.

The doomed individual was found in Herculaneum, the neighbouring town to Pompeii, in the 1960s and is now being analysed by scientists. 

It is believed the cells belong to either the spinal cord or the cerebellum. 

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A neuron is visible in this vitrified segment of brain tissue. The brain of a man in his mid-20s was vitrified during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD

Heat created by the devastating Mount Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD was so intense, the event transformed one victim’s brains into glass (pictured). The team spotted the vitrified remains which appeared as splatters of a shiny, black material in a man’s skull

The structure of some neurons was observed during microscopic analysis and confirms the earlier theory that the strange material was indeed brain. 

‘The results of our study show that the vitrification process occurred at Herculaneum, unique of its kind, has frozen the neuronal structures of this victim, preserving them intact until today,’ study lead author Pier Paolo Petrone, a forensic anthropologist at University Federico II of Naples in Italy, said.

Details of the latest find were published recently in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.  

Researchers believe the cells were preserved because the remains were rapidly heated to around 520°C and then rapidly cooled. 

‘This is the first time ever that vitrified human brain remains have been discovered resulting from heat produced by an eruption,’ Herculaneum officials said in January.

It is believed the man, in his mid-20s, was a member of a cult and was sleeping face down on a bed when he died. 

He was found in Herculaneum’s Collegium Augustalium, or the College of the Augustales and it is believed this building was the headquarters of the cult of the Emperor Augustus.

This group of people worshipped the emperor as a deity, and Petrone believes the victim may have been a caretaker for the building. 

Electron microscopes, an extremely powerful form of observation which can see tiny details, spotted signs of the cells. 

Their characteristic features were observed and X-ray analysis was then conducted to determine if it was from the organ. 

The results were conclusive, the 550 to 830 nanometer-wide section of cells was rich in carbon and oxygen, indicating it was organic and therefore likely his brain. 

The eruption of Vesuvius instantly killed the inhabitants of Pompeii and neighbouring Herculaneum, burying an area 12 miles from the volcano in ash in just a few hours.     

The team suggests temperatures may have hit 968 degrees Fahrenheit, according to charred wood also found around the site. 

Solidified spongy mass found in the victim’s chest bones is also unique among archaeological finds and can be compared with victims of more recent historic events like the firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg in World War II.  

Pictured is a shot of Mount Vesuvius from 2008 as it lays dormant 

One aspect that makes Herculaneum interesting in comparison with Pompeii is its location relative to Mount Vesuvius, giving some residents time to escape


What happened?  

Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year AD 79, burying the cities of Pompeii, Oplontis, and Stabiae under ashes and rock fragments, and the city of Herculaneum under a mudflow.  

Mount Vesuvius, on the west coast of Italy, is the only active volcano in continental Europe and is thought to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.  

Every single resident died instantly when the southern Italian town was hit by a 500°C pyroclastic hot surge.

Pyroclastic flows are a dense collection of hot gas and volcanic materials that flow down the side of an erupting volcano at high speed.

They are more dangerous than lava because they travel faster, at speeds of around 450mph (700 km/h), and at temperatures of 1,000°C.

An administrator and poet called Pliny the younger watched the disaster unfold from a distance. 

Letters describing what he saw were found in the 16th century.  

His writing suggests that the eruption caught the residents of Pompeii unaware.

Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year AD 79, burying the cities of Pompeii, Oplontis, and Stabiae under ashes and rock fragments, and the city of Herculaneum under a mudflow

He said that a column of smoke ‘like an umbrella pine’ rose from the volcano and made the towns around it as black as night.

People ran for their lives with torches, screaming and some wept as rain of ash and pumice fell for several hours.  

While the eruption lasted for around 24 hours, the first pyroclastic surges began at midnight, causing the volcano’s column to collapse.

An avalanche of hot ash, rock and poisonous gas rushed down the side of the volcano at 124mph (199kph), burying victims and remnants of everyday life.  

Hundreds of refugees sheltering in the vaulted arcades at the seaside in Herculaneum, clutching their jewellery and money, were killed instantly.

The Orto dei fuggiaschi (The garden of the Fugitives) shows the 13 bodies of victims who were buried by the ashes as they attempted to flee Pompeii during the 79 AD eruption of the Vesuvius volcano

As people fled Pompeii or hid in their homes, their bodies were covered by blankets of the surge.

While Pliny did not estimate how many people died, the event was said to be ‘exceptional’ and the number of deaths is thought to exceed 10,000.

What have they found?

This event ended the life of the cities but at the same time preserved them until rediscovery by archaeologists nearly 1700 years later.

The excavation of Pompeii, the industrial hub of the region and Herculaneum, a small beach resort, has given unparalleled insight into Roman life.

Archaeologists are continually uncovering more from the ash-covered city.

In May archaeologists uncovered an alleyway of grand houses, with balconies left mostly intact and still in their original hues.

A plaster cast of a dog, from the House of Orpheus, Pompeii, AD 79. Around 30,000 people are believed to have died in the chaos, with bodies still being discovered to this day

Some of the balconies even had amphorae – the conical-shaped terra cotta vases that were used to hold wine and oil in ancient Roman times.

The discovery has been hailed as a ‘complete novelty’ – and the Italian Culture Ministry hopes they can be restored and opened to the public.

Upper stores have seldom been found among the ruins of the ancient town, which was destroyed by an eruption of Vesuvius volcano and buried under up to six metres of ash and volcanic rubble.

Around 30,000 people are believed to have died in the chaos, with bodies still being discovered to this day. 

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