Photograph by CIRO FUSCO, ANSA via AP
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When the victim's body was discovered, Pompeii archaeologists suspected he had been crushed to death by a large rock during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

Photograph by CIRO FUSCO, ANSA via AP

Headless Pompeii Victim Wasn't Crushed to Death, After All

A surprising new discovery reveals the truth about what really happened to an unfortunate man in 79 A.D.

He was an unlucky person in an ill-fated place: A man whose head was seemingly crushed by a massive boulder as he fled Pompeii during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Now, his head has been found, along with the reason for his death, officials from the Pompeii Archaeological Park in Italy report.

Archaeologists located the open-mouthed skull near the unfortunate man’s body, which was unearthed in May. The find negates their previous theory that the man was crushed by the stone block (thought to be a door jamb) while trying to flee the second phase of the eruption that preserved much of the ancient Roman city beneath rock and ash.

“Now we know that the death was not due to the impact of the block, but presumably from probable asphyxiation due to the pyroclastic flow,” wrote the Pompeii Archaeological Park on its Facebook page.

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Not all volcanos produce lava. When Vesuvius erupted almost 2,000 years ago, it belched out a gigantic column of rock and ash. The next day, pyroclastic flows rushed down the mountain, wiping out massive swaths of land and life as they went.

Think of a pyroclastic flow as “a superheated hurricane-force wind carrying ash and rock that can destroy almost anything in its path,” says Benjamin Andrews, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program. They occur when a volcano collapses or boils over, fueling a deadly river of gas, ash, and rock that speeds down the side of the volcano with the help of gravity and air flow. Andrews compares a pyroclastic flow to a superheated sandblasting, with an occasional baseball- or bowling ball-sized rock thrown in.

“If you are in a pyroclastic flow, you will almost certainly die,” says Andrews. The Pompeiian man, who likely had a limp due to a bone infection, didn’t stand a chance against the quick-moving current of fire and debris. His lungs would have been no match for the air that rushed down into Pompeii—it contained toxic gases as hot as 1000°F.

Archaeologists found the skull at a lower level of the dig than the man’s body, presumably because a tunnel dug during the first excavation of Pompeii during the 1740s collapsed, taking the skull with it.

Today’s excavation is a bit more advanced than the first attempts to uncover the ancient city’s secrets. Archaeologists recently began excavating Regio V, a part of northern Pompeii that has yet to be fully explored. The excavation will involve lasers, drones, and virtual reality visualizations, the site’s director general told an Italian wire service.

All the technology in the world can’t reconstruct exactly what happened when Vesuvius erupted. But science tells us what the unfortunate man would have seen when he looked up toward the mountain. Imagine a “big terrifying cloud coming down the mountain at you,” says Andrews, and you’ll get a good idea of what the man saw during his last moments—while he still had his head.

Erin Blakemore is a freelance science writer and author of 'The Heroine's Bookshelf." Follow Erin on Twitter.