6 things you didn't know about Pompeii

WATCH: Walk through the entire once in a lifetime Pompeii Exhibition tour in Phoenix at the Arizona Science Center

PHOENIX - The Pompeii Exhibition at the Arizona Science Center takes you back in time to A.D. 79, when a volcanic eruption buried entire cities and killed thousands of people.

The exhibit, which opened Saturday and runs through May 28, 2018, has more than 200 artifacts that were preserved in the ashes for more than 1,700 years. You can also find some of the famous plaster casts of the victims. 

In honor of the display, here are a few interesting facts you may not have known about Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii.

It resulted in the first ever first-hand description of a volcanic eruption and its effects.

We have a pretty good idea of what happened around Mount Vesuvius in August of A.D. 79, thanks to the account of Pliny the Younger.

Pliny was 17 at the time, living in his uncle’s villa in the town of Misenum.

A few years after the disaster, he sent letters to the historian Cornelius Tacitus describing the eruption that killed his uncle, Pliny the Elder, and sent him and his mother fleeing for their lives.

On Aug. 24, Pliny and his uncle saw a column of smoke and ash rising from Mount Vesuvius. Pliny the Elder took a boat across the Bay of Naples to inspect the damage and help the terrified citizens, but he was killed by the toxic fumes.

Pumice and ash rained from the sky, blotting out the sun. According to Pliny’s letters, people tied pillows to their heads with cloths to protect themselves as they tried to escape the city.

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.

About 2,000 people stayed behind in Pompeii, hoping to wait out the eruption inside stone buildings. They would later be killed by a cloud of toxic gas and buried in the ash.

Pliny the Younger and his mother survived the event. Pliny would go on to become a lawyer and a confidant of the Roman Emperor Trajan.

A pyroclastic surge may have killed most of the Pompeians. 

When you think of Pompeii, those plaster figures immediately come to mind – many of them curled up in a fetal position.

It is widely believed those were the positions the Pompeians who stayed behind took as they suffocated to death beneath the volcanic ash, but a study from the journal PLoS ONE suggests they may have instead suffered a fate similar to the residents of nearby Herculaneum.

Herculaneum was a coastal resort town about a third the size of Pompeii on the other side of Mount Vesuvius.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, a pyroclastic surge -- a highly destructive, fast-moving mass of hot gases and molten rock -- rolled down the slopes of Vesuvius toward Herculaneum shortly after midnight on Aug. 25, instantly killing everyone in its path.

The archaeological study in PLos ONE proposes that another, weaker pyroclastic surge may have reached Pompeii as well, killing those who chose not to evacuate.

In analyzing the postures of the plaster bodies, researchers found evidence of sudden muscle contractions, such as curled toes, according to the study.

Scientists say the heat shock of a pyroclastic surge would cause a corpse’s muscles to contract in a sort of instant rigor mortis. This, rather than suffocation, could explain the bodies’ contorted forms.

They missed the warning signs.

It’s a common misconception that Mount Vesuvius’s eruption took Pompeii by surprise. Unlike earthquakes, volcanoes will never erupt without a warning sign.

About 16 years before the eruption, a major earthquake shook Campagnia, causing extensive damage to Pompeii and Herculanuem.

In addition, the ground rose in some places and underground springs began drying up.

In his letters to Tacitus, Pliny the Younger casually mentioned that there had also been a series of earthquakes in the area just days before Mount Vesuvius erupted.

For several days past there had been earth tremors which were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania: but that night the shocks were so violent that everything felt as if it were not only shaken but overturned.

The eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum is not in the top 10 deadliest volcanic eruptions.

As catastrophic as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius was, it is not one of history’s 10 deadliest volcanic eruptions.

In fact, Mount Vesuvius’s eruption in A.D. 79, which killed more than 2,000 people, ranks No. 15 if you list volcanic eruptions by death toll.

The deadliest volcanic eruption of all time happened in Indonesia in 1815. More than 71,000 people died when Mount Tambora erupted in April of that year.

Vesuvius is still an active volcano.

Mount Vesuvius has sat quiet for decades, but that doesn’t mean the danger is over.

Vesuvius is considered the only active volcano on the European mainland.  

The last major eruption happened in 1944, shortly after the Allied Forces arrived in Naples in WWII. The eruption destroyed the nearby villages of San Sebastiano and Massa and damaged an entire wing of 88 B-25 planes.

According to The Guardian, the area around Mount Vesuvius has become densely populated over the years. The article says as a result, about 3 million people could potentially be affected by the next eruption.

Pompeians had healthy diets and perfect teeth.

After the eruption, up to 20 feet of ash held everything in place for more than 2,000 years, giving archaeologists a pretty good idea of what life was like in A.D. 79. 

Pompeii was once an important trade city and a bustling resort town, a popular summer getaway for wealthy Romans. 

Its residents subsisted on a simple yet healthy diet of lentils, fish and olives, according to scientists who studied the latrines and drains of several houses in the city. The wealthiest residents would also eat fattier delicacies like suckling pig and sea urchin.

That healthy diet may have contributed to the Pompeians' perfect teeth, which scientists discovered while doing multi-layer CT scans of the plaster bodies.

According to The Atlantic, the high levels of fluoride in the air and water near Mount Vesuvius may also have helped maintain those pearly whites.

© 2017 KPNX-TV


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