Earlier Mount Vesuvius blast should be warning to
By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
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.