When scientists recently re-examined the ancient remains of people killed in the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, they were surprised by two findings in particular. For one thing, the ancient people of Pompeii seemed to have had perfect teeth, perhaps a product of a healthy diet and the high-fluorine air and water of their environment.
And, for another, it seems they didn't die in the manner researchers long suspected. Instead of being choked by a sudden blanket of ash and hot gas, Pompeii’s doomed residents sustained fatal head injuries, likely from collapsing structures and volcanic rocks that rained from the sky.
How they died has long been a fascination among historians and archaeologists. This curiosity is understandable. The eruption of Vesuvius was so devastating it is practically unimaginable. (To the people who lived in Pompeii at the time, it must have been beyond stunning: The volcano had gone generations without so much as a puff of steam, and it was believed to be dead.)
The death toll is uncertain but scholars believe as many as 25,000 people were killed. “With the eruption of Vesuvius, scholars, thinkers, and moralizers for centuries have been scrutinizing the death of all those victims,” said Roger Macfarlane, a classics professor at Brigham Young University. And over the centuries, scholars have pieced together astounding details about the circumstances of their deaths. We know, from ancient documents, that some people tied pillows to their heads. Plaster body-casts of victims, their remains preserved in volcanic ash, reveal the outlines of tunic fabric covering mouths trying to escape the sulphuric air. But implicit, and sometimes explicit, in the search for answers over mass casualty, is a much more troublesome question: Why?