New at Rosetta Stones: In Which Pompeii is Discussed

Yeah, so there was this BBC article in which a Cambridge professor said Pompeii was buried by lava… and George pointed it out… and I couldn’t help but to read a few papers, and ask Professor Beard to please clarify, and then write up a post. Yeah, I could’ve left it at “It wasn’t lava, it was a pyroclastic flow,” but would we have really learned anything?

A wall in Pompeii with some spectacular autumn color. I knew some of you would appreciate it. Image courtesy Kari Bluff.
A wall in Pompeii with some spectacular autumn color. I knew some of you would appreciate it. Image courtesy Kari Bluff.

I learned a lot. Hopefully, there will be a bit or two in there you didn’t know.

The ruins of Pompeii. Image courtesy Carolyn Conner.
The ruins of Pompeii. Image courtesy Carolyn Conner.
New at Rosetta Stones: In Which Pompeii is Discussed
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13 thoughts on “New at Rosetta Stones: In Which Pompeii is Discussed

  1. 2

    That was really a good article on Pompeii. You made it feel so personal.

    What Trebuchet says about Naples is oh-so-true! There’s a site in Naples I visited with my dad in 1979 called Herculaneum. My dad wanted to go there after we had visited Pompeii and climbed to the top of Vesuvius. Herculaneum was still in the early stages of being excavated as I recall. It was not much of a tourist site. We walked around and dad’s eye’s lit up and he got so excited and exclaimed, “This is a pyroclastic flow!! Herculaneum is buried in a pyroclastic flow!!!” I’ll never forget his glee. I’m not sure it was common knowledge yet or not. He obviously didn’t know it until that moment. That little side trip was probably one of the highlights of the whole Italian trip for him. Naples is definitely in the crosshairs of a major castastrophe if Vesuvius came to life again.

    Jane Crandell Monserud

  2. rq

    Somber. Very, very good.
    And your written description of this explosion reminded me of something – another supposed Plinean (is that correct?) explosion popular in history: I watched a dramatized version of I think the fall of Minos (?) about a year ago. Besides the usual made-for-TV melodrama and overdone costumery (with some censorship, see below), they did a pretty good, pretty scary reconstruction of people trying to outrun the volcano. Some unrealism, with people escaping really hot and fast rocks, but bearable, in my mind. I believe it was this one.
    Although that was me before I met you, so to speak – if you have the time, maybe you could watch and see if they do an accurate job of it (it was an interesting watch).

  3. 5

    To be clear, the technical definition of lava is molten rock that has escaped from a vent to the earth’s surface. So even though this was a fragmental ash fall, it *was* a form of lava. It’s just that “ash” is a preferable term in this case, as it more completely characterizes the deposit.

  4. 6

    Excellent post!

    I learned quite a bit about Pompeii/Vesuvius when I put together a presentation for the docents at a museum in Ann Arbor a couple of years back. Even so, I learned some things from your post.

    One thing I learned in putting together my presentation is that the tectonic setting is pretty messy, with back-arc extension, etc. Might be a good subject for a follow-up post. ;-)

    Regarding previous comments about Naples, I totally agree. I’m a lifelong midwesterner, and I’m used to the ground staying put. I’ve visited the Seattle area a couple of times – lovely city in a beautiful setting, but I would have similar reservations about living there. Between Mt. Rainier and a subduction zone capable of producing devastating earthquakes & tsunamis, I think I’d be a bit nervous.

  5. 7

    Gee, thanks, that makes me feel so…nervous! I live about 10 miles from Dana with volcanoes to the north, east, and south of course all the faults you mention and…I sure hope I can sleep tonight!

    Of course, the Midwest isn’t necessarily all that stable. Just ask anyone who lived in New Madrid, MO, in 1811.

  6. 8

    I used to work with someone who grew up in California. She shrugged off earthquakes, but freaked out when there was a tornado watch. I guess it depends on what you are used to.

    New Madrid is certainly something to pay attention to, and there is no doubt that if it were to act up now the results would be enormous, since earthquake resistance is not in the building codes of cities like Memphis and St. Louis. There is some debate as to how much of a threat there really is – some seismologists are of the opinion that it is pretty much done, while others are not so sure.

    Fortunately, I live quite a ways from there. We’d feel it, but suffer no serious damage. Of course, there’s always the mid-continent rift, right near by. Crap…

  7. 9

    There are certainly places in the Puget Sound region I wouldn’t live. Like Orting, WA, where people are still building houses on a plain that is certain to be covered with steaming mud one of these days, just as it’s been many times in the past. And anywhere on one of our scenic bluffs, which collapse into the water in various spots every winter. We can’t escape the possibility of earthquakes, of course.

  8. 10

    Plinean → Plinian. Just the one vowel was a bit off. Yes, a Plinian eruption, named for Pliny the younger who described the 79 AD Vesuvius eruption.

    the fall of Minos (?)

    The fall of what we call the Minoan civilization of Crete and surrounding area, including Santorini/Akrotiri (where the boom-boom Thera lives). The ‘Minoan eruption’ was also Plinian. Majorly phreatic.

  9. 11

    Nice post, if you combine the effects in Italy with Mt Pelee one sees that volcanoes can do a pretty good imitation of the thermal part of a nuclear bomb going off. (Not of course the radiation) but then the volcano leaves ash in great quantities. As with everyhwere if you avoid living on a major slope or in river valleys many natural disasters can be avoided. Proclastic flows like to follow river valleys as well, see the volcano in Columbia about that.

  10. 13

    F, to be utterly pedantic the descriptions of the eruption – particularly those that describe the signature of a Plinian eruption – are those given by Pliny the Elder on the 24th of August, 79 CE, as he was stationed at Misenum across the Bay of Naples from Pompeii and Herculaneum – and it’s well known he died the following day near Pompeii, while apparently trying to effect a rescue by sea of a friend. Pliny the Younger didn’t accompany his uncle on the ill-fated voyage, however he did write up the posthumous accounts of the disaster, and the scientific details that form part of the narrative are clearly reliant on his uncle’s keen observations.

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