Most people have heard of the city of Pompeii and its body count of around 2,000 people in the wake of the 79 CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Less talked about is the nearby town of Herculaneum, where some of Pompeii’s wealthier inhabitants sought refuge by the sea.

The last resort

Located less than four and a half miles from the summit of Mount Vesuvius, the town of Herculaneum was a waterfront resort town, home to many wealthy and prominent individuals. When the volcano erupted, its people fled to the shore, hiding in boat houses and cabins along the sea.

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Unlike the fate suffered by Pompeiians, whose home was about six and a half miles from the volcano, Herculaneans were not merely buried in falling ash. Their demise was much more violent.

A tidal wave of heat

When volcanoes erupt, they do more than belch ash, stone, and sometimes lava, called the pyroclastic flow, into the sky. Even more immediately deadly than all of those factors combined is the wave of hot gas that can precede the other elements. In the case of Herculaneum, settling right at the base of the volcano caused a bloody demise that was the stuff of nightmares.

How Stuff Works

The onslaught of 400 to 900-degree gas from the volcano hit the town and broiled its inhabitants alive. Unlike the fallout in Pompeii, which saw temperatures closer to 200 degrees, the people of Herculaneum died quickly and violently as their blood boiled and their skulls exploded.

Unearthing the devastation

Initial excavations of the Herculaneum site revealed few skeletons, leading archaeologists to believe that most of the inhabitants had managed to evacuate before the volcano claimed their lives. However, new digs have revealed the presence of hundreds more skeletons, most of which were found huddled in boathouses along the shore. The bones presented an iron-rich residue — the stains left behind when their blood was boiled away by the searing heat. Volcanic gases turned the victims’ brains to ash, and the change in pressure within the cranial cavities caused the skulls to burst outward.

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As horrifying as these archaeological finds are, the thought that Vesuvius has been dormant for nearly 2,000 years is more unsettling. The volcano, which is still active, sits only six miles from the city of Naples, home to almost a million people. Should the volcano erupt again, the results would be catastrophic.