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12 March 2006
Ancient eruption eclipses destruction of Pompeii

The preserved footprints and abandoned homes of villagers who fled a giant eruption of Mount Vesuvius 3,800 years ago show the volcano could destroy modern-day Naples with little warning, Italian and U.S. researchers reported. The event, called the Avellino catastrophe, destroyed the area of present-day Naples, making Bronze Age farmers flee for their lives and buried entire villages as far as 25 km from the volcano, cooking people as they tried to escape and dumping several metres of ash and mud. New excavations show far more extensive damage than that found at the more famous site of Pompeii, buried in 79 CE. It could happen again, affecting metropolitan Naples, where 3 million people live, and officials are not planning properly for it, the researchers write in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
     "Evidence shows that a sudden, en masse evacuation of thousands of people occurred at the beginning of the eruption," Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo and colleagues at the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Volcanologia-Osservatorio Vesuviano wrote. "Everything was there," added Michael Sheridan, a geologist and hazard assessment expert at the University at Buffalo in New York who worked on the study. "They even left animals in cages," Sheridan said. "Scenes of everyday life, frozen by the volcanic deposits, testify that people suddenly left the village: 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 by the first fallout pumice," the researchers wrote. I think what they probably had was a couple of days (to get out). There are lots of skeletons but thousands and thousands of footprints," Sheridan said.
     The footprints would have been left as survivors ran through the mud deposited in the explosion. Ash filled them, preserving them for archeologists
to find. The site at Pompeii is famous for the vignettes of everyday life preserved in the ash. Several sites dug up in farmland and pumice quarries in the surrounding area show similar preservation of the much-older Bronze Age civilization, Sheridan said.
     In its first phase, that eruption, which occurred in the Early Bronze Age, produced an enormous column of gas and ash that reached 36 kilometres up unto the stratosphere. To the east of the volcano, rocks hailed down from the sky, hammering an area that covered thousands of square kilometres. In the last stages of the eruption, the collapsing gas column produced huge burning clouds full of ash hundreds of degrees hot, which first moved at speeds of at least 300 km an hour.
     The eruption had devastating effects on an area that stretched up to 15 kilometres from the volcano and all of the sites examined in the study reveal signs of the population taking flight in haste. The only bodies with substantial remains left were of a man and woman found buried under ash in a spot some 17 kilometres from the volcano. Many others died when the ash in the air became so thick it got into their lungs and suffocated them.
     The scientists believe that most of the 10,000 or so inhabitants of the area probably survived the eruption. Indeed, they found thousands of footprints made in the ash, all leading away from the volcano. Archaeological evidence indicates that some people returned and tried to set up settlements again. It was a vain attempt, as the deposit of millions of cubic metres of ash and small pumice fragments made the area uninhabitable for hundreds of years.
     Vesuvius is the only active volcano on the European mainland and erupts dramatically in cycles. According to Sheridan, while there may not be a high probability that events like the Avellino eruption or the Pompeii eruption will occur in the near future, Italian authorities must still consider those possibilities. "There was this Bronze Age eruption about 4000 years ago, and then 2000 years ago there was the 79AD event. It seems that just about every 2000 years, there's been a major eruption of this scale at Vesuvius," says Sheridan.

Sources: Reuters, Yahoo! News (6 March 2006), Corriere della Sera (7 March 2006), ABC, Discovery News (8 March 2006)

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