Report: Naples Should Study Vesuvius Blast

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID
The Associated Press
Monday, March 6, 2006; 9:10 PM

WASHINGTON -- Bronze-age farmers escaping a massive volcanic eruption abandoned their homes in and around what is today the Italian city of Naples, leaving food and cooking implements on their tables as they fled.

Others were trapped and died where they had lived, their bodies a warning that the modern city needs to consider the threat from Mount Vesuvius in planning for the future, said Michael Sheridan, a geology professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


This undated image provided by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America shows a close-up of bones buried by the Avellino eruption of San Paolo Belsito, near Nola, Italy. (AP Photo/Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America)
This undated image provided by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America shows a close-up of bones buried by the Avellino eruption of San Paolo Belsito, near Nola, Italy. (AP Photo/Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) (AP)

"Scenes of everyday life, frozen by the volcanic deposits, testify that people suddenly left," Sheridan and co-authors report in Monday's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In one area there were "the molds of four huts with pottery and other objects left inside; skeletons of a dog and nine pregnant goat victims found in a cage; and footprints of adults, children and cows filled in by the first fallout pumice."

The eruption occurred about 3,780 years ago _ about the same era as Hammurabi was consolidating his hold on Babylon, the Shang Dynasty established control of northern China and the earliest ceremonial pyramids were built in South America. The remains have been under study in the last couple of years by Italian and other archaeologists.

The blast was much larger than the eruption of A.D. 79 that buried the towns near the mountain, producing the famed archaeological sites at Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae, Sheridan said in a telephone interview.

Sheridan said a future eruption should provide considerable warning from earthquakes in advance and urged that this danger be included in hazard planning for Naples. Current planning focuses on a smaller eruption from 1631 that only affected areas near the base of the mountain, he said.

But the new findings from the ancient quake show the hazard from ash, hot gases and other dangers could affect much of modern Naples, he said.

Indicating there must have been warnings of the ancient disaster, the researchers found thousands of footprints from a rapid evacuation of the area, including the present Neapolitan district.

Not everyone fled, though, as they found the skeleton of a man and woman buried more than a yard deep near the village of San Belsito, they added.

Why didn't everyone go?

"These were bronze age people and they had a pantheon of gods that they thought controlled their world," Sheridan said, so some probably made sacrifice to the gods when they felt warning quakes or saw vapors before the final blast.

Remains indicate that some of those who fled returned quickly and built new homes, they said, but those sites were abandoned a short time later and no new permanent settlements were established for more than 200 years, the researchers reported.

A similar eruption today would bring "extreme devastation extending into the densely urbanized Neapolitan area" that was untouched by the A.D. 79 event, they warned.

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