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Posted 3/6/2006 7:37 PM
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Earlier Mount Vesuvius blast should be warning to Naples
Italy's Mount Vesuvius erupted catastrophically about 1780 B.C., burying Bronze Age villages and people, U.S. and Italian researchers reported Monday.

The damage exceeded that at the more famous site of Pompeii in A.D. 79 and should be a stark warning to the modern-day city of Naples, the researchers warn.

"The pattern is that every 2,000 to 3,000 years, there is a monstrous eruption (of Mount Vesuvius). And it has now been about 2,000 years," says study co-author Michael Sheridan of the University at Buffalo in New York.

The study, led by Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo of the Vesuvius Observatory, appears in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pompeii sits about 7 miles south of Mount Vesuvius. The A.D. 79 blast threw debris more than 10 miles. Naples, a city of 3 million, is about 8 miles away from the volcano on its opposite, northwestern side.

At dozens of sites, the researchers dug to the ash layer left by the Bronze Age eruption, 10 feet thick in some places. Along with preserved huts, the team reported the "extraordinary discovery of thousands of human and animal footprints" marking an attempt to flee.

They also found the skeletal remains of a man and a woman, who probably died of suffocation like many of Pompeii's victims. Their hut was probably pelted with rocks that fell from a cloud of superheated groundwater steam, boiled in the eruption.

"People left utensils on tables, food plates. They just left and beat it out of there," Sheridan says.

Italian investigators had first uncovered evidence of the Bronze Age (3500 B.C. to 1200 B.C.) eruption in 2001. The new study ties together the past findings and presents new evidence of its surprising extent.

The eruption's suffocating ash cloud was likely preceded by a warning blast, the researchers conclude. The eruption covered parts of modern-day Naples. About 10 miles from the eruption, the ash cloud cooled and fell from the sky, leaving a muddy slurry that preserved the footprints.

Mount Vesuvius is one of the most heavily monitored volcanoes in the world. It last erupted in 1944. Geologic records indicate it has experienced eight major eruptions since it erupted itself into existence about 24,000 years ago. The Bronze Age blast should be considered a worst-case scenario for Naples: A similar eruption today would probably kill everyone within 7 miles, the researchers warn.

The ancient eruption turned a breadbasket region into a desert for at least a century, Sheridan says. "It must have had huge ripple effects throughout Italy." The researchers report finding ash 90 miles from Mount Vesuvius.

The archaeological findings should tell researchers a great deal about life in the Bronze Age at a time when ancient Egypt was the superpower, Sheridan says.

"We'll learn a lot about how normal people lived their lives then," he says. The volcanic ash preserved even the straw from collapsed huts.