How Did the People of Pompeii Die? Suffocation Versus Thermal Shock

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Body from Pompeii's Macellum showing pugilistic pose

This body from the macellum demonstrates the pugilistic pose-a body in spasm, supposedly fighting death. But new theories suggest this pose is the result of the effects of high temperatures on a post-mortem body.
Photo Credit: Natasha Sheldon. All rights reserved.

Archaeologists have recovered around 1150 bodies from Pompeii. Of these, 394 were victims of the early phase of the eruption, found buried beneath layers of pumice.

Falling lithics – pumice and rock spewed from the eruption column – killed 10% of these early casualties, while the other 90% died in buildings when roofs and floors collapsed from the weight of ash and from seismic tremors.

But the other 756 were victims of the final stage of the eruption, when Vesuvius’s collapsing eruption column released a series of pyroclastic surges- clouds of superheated gas and ash.

Experts generally accept that the victims of the surges suffocated. But recent studies of Pompeii’s body casts suggests that the victims of the surges died a very different kind of death.

The Evidence for Suffocation

The poses of the body casts have led to the theory that a mix of hot gas and ashes asphyxiated the victims of the pyroclastic surges. Casts such as the muleteer seem like they are trying to cover their mouths and noses as if to protect themselves from the contents of the air around them.


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According to the suffocation theory, the victims died agonizing deaths. With their first breath, they inhaled  a mix of hot carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, hydrogen chloride and sulphur dioxide, which seared the respiratory system. These gases mixed with fine ash, which once inhaled, formed a kind of cement in the lungs. The second breath thickened this mixture  and on the third breath , the wind pipe closed and death occurred.

Many of the casts seem to capture the agony of this death. In the Garden of the Fugitives, the fifth surge caught a group of people attempting to escape Pompeii in its dying moments. One man seems to be trying to raise himself up as he was dying, while others remain contorted into the ‘pugilistic pose.’

Slide showing various poses of casts found in Pompeii. Used with permission of Pier Paolo Petrone

Slide showing various poses of casts found in Pompeii. Image used with permission of Pier Paolo Petrone

 A ‘Post Mortem Stance’

Anthropologist Pier Paolo Petrone disagrees with this interpretation. Dr. Petrone has been involved in a close study of  93 well-preserved casts of the surge victims at Pompeii. He does not believe the pugilistic pose indicates the victims suffocated.

The pugilistic attitude was erroneously thought to be the victim’s attempt for self-defense,” he told Decoded Past. “This is exclusively a post-mortem stance. The typical body posture of a suffocated person is a floppy body, mostly standing in an unnatural position, just the opposite of the ‘life-like’ stance of most of victims found in Pompeii.”

Death by Thermal Shock

Dr. Petrone is one of growing number of experts who believe the bodies actually show signs of death by thermal shock. Dr. Peter Baxter, of Cambridge University, has also studied the casts from Pompeii as part of his work on the health aspects of volcanic eruptions. He described the effects of thermal shock in an interview with Decoded Past:

The direct heat of the surge would be combined with the radiant heat of the ash particles in the cloud to cause rapid fourth degree burns, i.e., burns extending below the skin layer and into the muscles/deep tissues, with rapid overheating of the blood returning to the heart causing cardiac arrest and/or the brain causing respiratory arrest.”

The Postures of the Pompeii Casts

So what evidence do the body casts from Pompeii offer us of instant death by thermal shock?

Experts place the casts in two groups. One group displays the primary postures assumed at the time of death, and the other exhibits secondary, post-mortem postures. Those falling into the primary category all seem frozen in their activities at the moment they died. In comparison, the pugilistic pose typifies the post-mortem postures.

Dr Petrone and his fellow experts believe that a condition called cadaveric shock caused the lifelike and often peaceful forms of the primary group of casts.

“Such thermal shock induced an instantaneous muscular stiffening– known as cadaveric spasm– which caused the victims to be frozen in their postures at the time of the impact with the hot ash surge,” explained Dr. Petrone.

He continued, “The presence of this rare stance is indicative that people were alive at the time of posture arrest and its widespread occurrence is a key evidence that all victims groups were exposed to the same lethal conditions. The predominance of this feature in Pompeii victims points to an instant death due to heat exposure.”

Death by cadaveric shock prevents the normal relaxation of the body after death-which explains why the victims of Pompeii maintained their body posture.

The post-mortem ‘pugilistic pose’ also serves as an indicator of death by thermal shock. Its characteristic ‘clawing’ pose where the victim seems to struggle against death is in fact caused by the tendons and muscles of the limbs contracting  after death due to the extreme heat.

The burnt muscles contract – shorten as they coagulate – and limbs bend into a position which can’t be straightened even after death,” explained Dr. Baxter.

But why the difference between the two sets of poses? It seems that those sheltering at the time of the surge were more likely to assume a primary pose while the pugilistic pose was common amongst those caught out in the open.

If the temperature was much higher and the all the people were caught in the open then all the bodies would show the same attitude, especially as clothing would ignite in all of the victims.” Dr Baxter said.

Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, a volcanologist at the Vesuvius Observatory, identified both postures as typified by the victims of nuclear explosions- or volcanic eruptions.

 Determining the Temperatures of Pompeii’s Surges

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Scientists heated modern bones to a range of temperatures equivalent to the pyroclastic surges from Vesuvius. They were then compared to bones from Pompeii to help identify the temperatures that killed the victims of 79 AD. Picture used with permission of Pier Paolo Petrone

Scientists determined that the thermal threshold for human survival is 200 degrees Celsius. Dr Mastrolorenzo, Dr Petrone and their colleagues have been able to prove that the surges in Pompeii exceeded this level and so were hot enough to kill.

They heated batches of  human and horse bones to between 100-800 degrees Celsius – temperatures compatible with those of the surges emitted by Vesuvius. Burnt bones assume different colors dependent on the heat to which they were subjected. The bones of Pompeii’s victims were burnt to a pale yellow. This was the colour of the modern bones heated to temperatures of between 250-300 degrees Celsius.

Hot Enough to Kill – But Not Destroy  

In an experiment shown in a 2013 BBC programme ‘Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time,’ a team from the University of Edinburgh replicated the effects of a pyroclastic surge in Pompeii. They took a piece of pork wrapped in a woolen fabric,  and exposed it to intense infrared radiation of between 200-250 degrees Celsius for 150 seconds.

The cloth was left slightly charred but intact and the pork heated but otherwise unchanged. This established that the temperatures in Pompeii were hot enough to kill, but they would not have destroyed clothing and soft tissues-which explains  why many of the casts show the bodies retaining their forms, clothes, and even hairstyles at death.

Thermal Shock Versus Suffocation

The evidence for thermal shock as the cause of death in Pompeii seems unequivocal. But Dr. Baxter does not rule out the part played by asphyxiation.

“At Mount St Helens in 1980, people were in the open and the surge was fast-moving. Ash was forced into the mouths and lungs – bad news. When  the windpipe is blocked you can’t breath by definition,” he explained. “In a dilute, slow-moving surge if the temperature is low enough you might survive the burns but still eventually die in hospital from lung injury due to burns to the lung tissue from inhaling hot ash. Either heat or suffocation gets you first in the surge itself.”

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© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

Comments

  1. Reese morrison says

    I think it was suffocation that killed the people of Pompeii because with the many different gasses in there systems it would cause the wind pipe to shut down and eventually cause death but it could also be heat that killed them because if the ash was hot enough (which it was if came from a volcano Duhhh) if would have caused the blood to over heat and cause the heart to go into cardiac arrest- Reese Morrison 12 years old and fabulous

        • Jim says

          Why didnt experts think of H2S poisoning? This would explain why those people kept the position that they were before the eruption. Suffocation or thermal shock only would force that people to rush. The body aspect would be quite different, off course.

          • Carly Daniels says

            I think that would be included in the asphyxiation side of it, but a lot of the people were killed due to inhaling the ash, which was included with gasses and eventually formed a cement substance in the lungs. The H2S would have assisted in the way the bodies formed the shapes they did. The spasms and shocks helped form that but overall what killed them in the long run is the blocking of the wind pipe because that was a much faster death that what would have been death by H2S poisoning. I think they just neglected to mention that it would be included in the death but was not a huge factor. Sorry if I’m wrong, this is just how I see it.

          • Carly Daniels says

            Sorry, just in addition to that, I’ve just seen that high exposure to H2S can kill within a few breaths and this could be a larger factor, but overall the death I still think would be because there was no way for the air to be reaching the blood because the lungs were quickly becoming clogged with ash and then the cement substance and it would mean that the H2S could not reach the blood as it would usually be able to. Once again, sorry if I’m completely wrong, this is just how I’m viewing it.

  2. Vincent E. Summers says

    I do believe thermal shock is the likely answer. I recall watching a special that discussed Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the outcomes were different from the same event. Thermal characteristics easily explains the difference.

  3. Muzammil says

    Quran (Islamic Holy Book) narrates about the punishment Allah SWT (God) gave to the people of Prophet Lut (Lot in Bible) which is almost identical if not the same to the people of Pompeii.

    Archaeologists have found their existence in North of Dead Sea.
    They had three main crimes: (1)HOMOSEXUALITY (being their major Sin) (2)Sinned openly (3)Ambushed & robbed travellers

    So Allah destroyed them with 3 different punishments at the same time (no any other nations before them were destroyed with more than one punishment). The punishments were (1)Awful cry (2)Their land lifted and completely turned upside down (3)HIT BY BAKED STONES (which baked their bodies – Just Like the people of Pompeii

    So take heed and spend time in search of truth!

    • BrainWork says

      You are extremely supercial, unscientific and fundamentalist…and openly advocating hate. Trim your culture, because you are severely outdated with your “book”! The world is more sinful when full of fundamentalists than with a few gays.

  4. Michael says

    It had to be an instant or quick death. If they suffocated, the body has to collapse, or become limp. Which is a completely different pose than what we are seeing. These people had to have died from a heat blast because these people were “caught in the act” so to speak. I have never seen a person who died of suffocation maintain an active pose! Get real!

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