Pompeii, located in the south of Italy close to the Bay of Naples, was an important port and trade center in ancient times. It was destroyed by a volcanic eruption from the nearby Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The eruption caused a pyroclastic flow and ashfall that buried the city, preserving stunning frescoes, architecture, and artifacts in an incredible archaeological record. The tragedy, which killed an estimated 16,000 people, has captivated people ever since the city’s rediscovery in the 1700s.
The eruption wiped out the town in an afternoon, as the unstoppable pyroclastic flow of 350 °C lava, ash, and pumice rushed through the streets. Pompeii’s citizens had no way of knowing the danger they were in and very little time to react. As the volcano’s eruption plume rose to a massive height of 33 kilometers, civilization on the ground was buried beneath an estimated 3 meters of material. Houses and shops of all sizes were blocked off and eventually forgotten.
The huge eruption unleashed around 100,000 times the thermal energy of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and sent out a brilliant jet of white-hot magma, or molten rock, 200 kilometers into the air. A strong surge of air moved along the ground, destroying and burning everything in sight. Trees were uprooted, buildings and walls destroyed, and the land was covered with rocks, ash, and toxic mud.
Around 16,000 people were killed that day. Some were instantly crushed under heavy ash; others were poisoned by toxic gases emitted from the volcano. Over the following centuries, the bodies of the victims were turned into sculptures as ash descended over them, leaving them fossilized in their last moments.
Casts of Victims
In the late 1800s, archaeologists started to uncover attics, roof tiles, weapons and other artifacts in Pompeii. The scientific method of making a cast of these corpses was developed in 1863, so that the fossilized remains of the victims could be observed in all their postures, enabling us to appreciate the charm and sympathy of their tragic death.
Amazingly, some of the most impressive ancient buildings were preserved almost intact under the mount of ash and lava. Although the outer walls were destroyed, the interiors still contained frescoes and mosaics, while library shelves contained scrolls, theater masks adorned the floors, and even tools and kitchenware. These structures are now World Heritage sites, providing an incredible historical record of what was once the thriving, vibrant city of Pompeii.
Mount Vesuvius, which is still an active volcano, was discovered in 79 A.D. and became famous as the volcano that destroyed the ancient city. Scientists now have a better understanding of how volcanoes work, and how their eruptions can cause so much devastation.
h2>Characteristics of Volcanoes
Volcanoes are the result of plate tectonics where two plates move in opposite directions. As the plates diverge, the rock between them is forced down and molten rock from the mantle rises up to fill the space, and eventually erupts through the surface to create a volcano. Volcanic eruptions are usually caused by an abundance of pressure, either from the lava itself or from gas pockets released from the molten rock.
h2>Types of Eruptions
The type of eruption a volcano produces is determined by the type of lava coming out and the amount of pressure in the magma chamber. Explosive eruptions are the most violent and occur when the pressure is greatest and a lot of gas-rich lava is forced out. Pyroclastic flows are a type of explosive eruption that releases a damaging river of hot ash and rock. Such a disaster was what happened in Pompeii.
h2>Warning Signs of Volcanic Eruptions
Geologists have now become adept in judging if a volcano is about to erupt, by looking for telltale signs such as shallow earthquakes, increased gas emissions, and the bulging of the volcano’s cone. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. was preceded by tremors, leading to some citizens fleeing the city, but unfortunately many others were not so lucky.
h2>The Legacy of Pompeii
Pompeii has become a powerful symbol of the effects of natural disaster and human tragedy. Its destruction is a reminder to us of the fragile nature of our world and the dangers that come with it. Archaeological evidence from the site has allowed us to gain a fascinating insight into life in the ancient world and has helped to shape our modern understanding of history.
h2>The Study of Volcanoes
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. helped to galvanize scientific study of volcanoes and eruptions. Scientists and observers have contributed to the collective knowledge surrounding volcanic eruptions, from noting phenomena like ashfall and pyroclastic flows to measuring seismic activity as an indication of a pending eruption. This collective wisdom is invaluable to modern society in providing responses to potential disaster.
h2>The Protection of Volcanoes
With more awareness of and better tools to study volcanoes, communities can be better prepared in the event of an eruption. Governments now have the ability to set-up emergency response teams and evacuation plans, as well as other measures to protect citizens. This is evidenced by the multiple eruptions of Mount Vesuvius since 79 A.D. that have been managed with much less tragedy than the original disaster.