The discovery was made when experts studied the remains first discovered in the 1960s in Herculaneum, a city buried in ash during the AD 79 volcanic eruption.
The victim, who was found lying face down on a wooden bed in a building believed to be devoted to the cult of Emperor Augustus, was about 25 at the time of his death, according to researchers.
Pier Paolo Petrone, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Naples Federico II who led the research, told CNN that the project began when he saw “glassy material glistening from inside the skull” while working near the skeleton in the 2018.
Speaking of this process, Petrone said: “The brain exposed to the hot volcanic ash must first have liquefied and then immediately transformed into a glassy material by the rapid cooling of the volcanic ash deposit.”
After subsequent analysis, including the use of an electron microscope, the team found cells in the vitrified brain, which were “incredibly well preserved with resolution impossible to find anywhere else,” according to Petrone.
The researchers also found intact nerve cells in the spinal cord, which, like the brain, had been vitrified.
The latest results were published in the American magazine PLOS One.
Guido Giordano, a Roma Tre University volcanologist who worked on the study, told CNN that the charred wood found next to the skeleton allowed the researchers to conclude that the site reached a temperature of over 500 degrees Celsius (932 degrees Fahrenheit). ) after the eruption.
Referring to the latest findings, Giordano said the “preservation perfection” found in vitrification is “totally unprecedented” and has been a boon to the researchers.
“This paves the way for the studies of these ancient people that have never been possible,” he said.
The team of researchers – archaeologists, biologists, forensic scientists, neurogeneticists and mathematicians from Naples, Milan and Rome – will continue to study the remains.
They want to learn more about the vitrification process – including the exact temperatures the victims were exposed to, as well as the cooling rate of the volcanic ash – and also hope to analyze the proteins from the remains and their related genes, according to Petrone.
The first task is “crucial for the risk assessment by the competent authorities in the event of a possible future eruption of Vesuvius, the most dangerous volcano in the world, which looms over 3 million inhabitants of Naples and its surroundings,” Petrone said. . .