Tuesday, 27 August 2013


After centuries of dormancy, at noon on August24, 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius erupted in southern Italy, devastating the Roman cities Pompeii and Herculaneum and killing thousands. Pompeii and Herculaneum thrived near the base of Mount Vesuvius at the Bay of Naples. However after the eruption the cities were buried under a thick layer of volcanic material and mud and were never rebuilt, leading to them becoming largely forgotten until the 18th century, when Pompeii and Herculaneum were rediscovered and excavated.

In the time of the early Roman Empire, 20,000 people lived in Pompeii, including merchants, manufacturers, and farmers who exploited the rich volcanic soil with hundreds of vineyards and orchards. The residents did not realise the black fertile soil was a tell-tale sign of earlier eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Herculaneum was a smaller city, of only 5,000 residents, however it was a favourite summer destination for rich Romans. Named after the mythic hero Hercules, the city housed beautiful villas and grand Roman baths. Many gambling artifacts found in Herculaneum and a brothel discovered in Pompeii show the true nature of the cities.

The eruption came when the peak of Mount Vesuvius exploded, propelling a 10-mile ash cloud into the stratosphere. For the next 12 hours, volcanic ash and a hail of pumice stones up to 3 inches in diameter showered Pompeii, forcing the city's occupants to flee in terror. Some 2,000 people stayed in Pompeii, holed up in cellars or stone structures, hoping to wait out the eruption.

A westerly wind protected Herculaneum from the initial stage of the eruption, but then a giant cloud of hot ash and gas surged down the western flank of Vesuvius, engulfing the city and burning or suffocating all who remained. This lethal cloud was followed by a flood of volcanic mud and rock, burying the city.

The people who remained in Pompeii were killed on the morning of August 25 when a cloud of toxic gas poured into the city, suffocating all that remained. A flow of rock and ash followed, collapsing roofs and walls and burying the dead. The eruption lasted 18 hours, and by the end of it Pompeii was buried under over 15 feet of ash, and Herculanem blanketed by more than 60 feet of mud and volcanic material. The coastline was also drastically changed. Some residents of Pompeii later returned to dig out their destroyed homes and salvage their valuables, but many treasures were left and then forgotten.

In the 18th century, a well digger unearthed a marble statue on the site of Herculaneum. The local government excavated some other valuable art objects, but the project was abandoned. In 1748, a farmer found traces of Pompeii beneath his vineyard. Since then, excavations have gone on nearly without interruption until the present. In 1927, the Italian government resumed the excavation of Herculaneum, retrieving numerous art treasures, including bronze and marble statues and paintings.

The remains of 2,000 men, women, and children were found at Pompeii, who suffocated to death and had their bodies preserved under hardened ash. The rest of the city is likewise frozen in time, and ordinary objects that tell the story of everyday life in Pompeii are as valuable to archaeologists as the great unearthed statues and frescoes. It was not until 1982 that the first human remains were found at Herculaneum, and these hundreds of skeletons bear ghastly burn marks that testifies to horrifying deaths.

Today, Mount Vesuvius is the only active volcano on the European mainland. Its last eruption was in 1944 and its last major eruption was in 1631. Another eruption is expected in the near future, would could be devastating for the 700,000 people who live in the "death zones" around Vesuvius.

source: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/vesuvius-erupts