ROME – It looks like a piece of rock, black and shiny. But Italian anthropologists say the fragment is actually part of an exploded brain from a victim of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79.
The discovery — published on Thursday in The New England Journal of Medicine — is a rarity in archaeology, and researchers called it “sensational.”
Scholars who for years have studied the grisly remains of those trapped by ash, lava and toxic gases when the volcano erupted in southern Italy were intrigued by a curious glassy material found inside one victim’s skull in the ruins of Herculaneum, near Pompeii.
“In October 2018, I was able to look at these remnants, and I saw that something was shimmery in the shattered skull,” said Pier Paolo Petrone, one of the researchers.
Petrone, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Naples Federico II, said he was “pretty sure this material was human brain.”
Further analysis by Piero Pucci from the CEINGE advanced biotech center in Naples confirmed that it did indeed contain bits of proteins and fatty acids from hair and brain tissue.
Herculaneum, named after the Greek god Hercules, was a popular resort town for the rich northwest of Pompeii when Vesuvius erupted. The molten lava covered the city and everything in it 50 feet (16 meters) deep, solidifying and preserving organic remains.
The man at the center of the discovery is believed to have been the custodian of the College of the Augustales, the center of the cult of Emperor Augustus. His charred body was discovered in the 1960s inside his quarters, laid out on his wooden bed.
Researchers believe the heat rose to 520 degrees Celsius (970 Fahrenheit) from the hot gases emitted by from the eruption — a temperature high enough to make body fat ignite and vaporize soft tissues. A rapid drop in temperature ensued, a poorly understood phenomenon that nevertheless helped vitrify human remains.
“The high heat was literally able to burn the victim’s fat and body tissues, causing the brain to vitrify,” the archaeological site of Herculaneum said in a statement.
The discovery was the result of a collaboration between the director of Herculaneum, CEINGE in Naples, and researchers from the University of Naples Federico II and Cambridge University.
Also on Thursday, academics from Britain’s Teesside and York Universities published new research in the Antiquity journal about the victims of Herculaneum.
Studies on the ribs of 152 skeletons showed residents died not from extreme heat but because of toxic gases, they found. Collagen that remained in the bones was “inconsistent with vaporisation,” Teesside said in a statement.
Researchers studying the archaeological site of Herculaneum have already managed to uncover family relationships between victims based on their DNA. Seven women and three men found to be related all came from the Middle East, suggesting they may have been slaves.
As for the custodian’s brain — it, too, could offer more clues.
“If we manage to reheat the material, liquefy it, we could maybe find this individual’s DNA,” Petrone said.
“That will be the next step.”