Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii
The only active volcano on mainland Europe is Mount Vesuvius, situated on the west coast of Italy, and most well-known for its eruption in the year 79 A.D. destroying the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world due to its proximity to the highly populated city Naples, Italy and other surrounding towns on the mountain's slopes.
In 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius destroyed the city of Pompeii. It quickly buried the city in volcanic ash and preserved the life of this Ancient Roman city. Because of this unwanted preservation, much has been learned about the city and the disaster. In fact, a detailed account of the disaster was recorded following interviews with survivors by Pliny the Younger, in a letter to his friend Tacitus.
It was just 17 years earlier when the same city experienced an earthquake and it was finally recovering when Vesuvius erupted. The earthquake in 62 A.D. originated beneath the mountain and caused major damage to the springs and piping that provided water for the city.
The earthquakes lasted for several days and damaged the town of Herculaneum and nearby Naples. Several minor quakes occurred for several years, but once it subsided Vesuvius was not given much attention by the citizens, and the people were unprepared for what would happen shortly before noon on August 24, 79 A.D.
Pliny described it as a resembling a pine more than any other tree, 'Like a very high tree the cloud went high and expanded in different branches.... sometimes white, sometimes dark and stained by the sustained sand and ashes.' At 1:00 in the afternoon, the sun was blocked as people tried to clear the heavy ash from the rooftops, but it was falling at a rate of 6 inches per hour.
Less than 12 hours later, at midnight, volcanic mud took over the town of Herculaneum and its citizens escaped to Pompeii. However, just 6 hours later, Pompeii became was covered in the debris and ashes. The victims died almost instantly as the heated air burned their lungs and tightened their muscles. The dead bodies remained in a semi-curled position quickly buried in ash and preserved for hundreds of years.
Following the eruption, Pliny also had witnessed '...the sea retreating as if pushed by the earthquakes.' The movement of the water was most likely caused by a tsunami. He described victims wheezing and gasping for air. About 2,000 people had died. The two cities were abandoned for centuries.
The preserved city that was left behind has taught experts about everyday life in the ancient world. In 1748, Pompeii was discovered by a group of explorers seeking ancient artifacts. They learned that the ashes from the volcano preserved the city. Pompeii appeared the same as it did nearly 2,000 years earlier. Skeletons remained where the people had fallen, objects and household goods were scattered throughout the streets, and later jars of preserved fruit and loaves of bread were uncovered below the ashes.
Mount Vesuvius has erupted about 50 times, but its most famous eruption took place in 79 A.D. when it destroyed, but also preserved, the city of Pompeii. Without the preservation, archaeologists would have learned much less about life during the first century in Italy and the Roman Empire.
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