Vesuvius victims' heads may have exploded - study

Vesuvius today. Photo credit: Getty

Romans caught in the infamous Vesuvius eruption may have died when their heads exploded, according to a new study.

Thousands died in 79AD when the volcano blew its top, sending hot ash, gas and rock raining down on the Roman town.

Researchers in Italy examined dozens of skeletons found in the nearby town of Herculaneum, which was even closer to the volcano than Pompeii. They found a reddish residue on many of the skulls, which testing showed was high in iron and iron oxides.

"The detection of such iron-containing compounds from the skull and the ash filling the endocranial cavity, coupled with brown coloration of venous sinuses, bone blackening and cracking, strongly suggests a widespread pattern of heat-induced haemorrhage, intracranial pressure increase and bursting, most likely to be the cause of instant death of the inhabitants in Herculaneum."

LiveScience reported their heads would have exploded like "unpierced baked potatoes".

Few of the skeletons were curled up in a ball, as most victims of fire do as their muscles dry up and contract - the researchers say this is extra evidence their muscles burned away almost instantaneously.

"That could only be explained by very rapid replacement of flesh by ash," the study, published in journal PLOS One, reads.

There are millions of people living nearby Vesuvius today. Still active, it is the only volcano in Europe to have erupted in the last 100 years.