Many people think that the only thing deadly about a volcanic eruption is the lava. All you have to do to realize that this is not the case is to look at the residents of Ancient Pompeii. Their city was destroyed in CE 79 when it was buried, not by hot lava, but by hot ash and gasses. Over nine feet of hot ash completely blanketed the city of Pompeii but it was the gasses that came first that did much of the damage and which killed many of the residents.
Before the volcano erupted, Pompeii was a very busy city and one that had much to offer in terms of culture and commerce. The town was located near where the city of Naples is located today. A large number of frescoes have shown archaeologists a lot about what daily life was like in Pompeii. It was a popular destination for many Romans who wanted an escape from the city and many holiday villas were located in the city.
Part of the reason that the area was so popular was the incredible richness of the soil. This made farming easy. Unfortunately, that rich soil had developed from years of repeated volcanic eruptions. Because there had been a number of smaller eruptions in the area for many years, the residents of Pompeii and its sister city, Herculaneum, felt secure that they would not be harmed should the volcano erupt again. They were very wrong.
Unlike previous eruptions, the eruption of CE 79 did not produce gouts of flame and rivers of molten rock and lava. In the earliest stages of the eruption, the cap blew off of the crater and the cities surrounding the volcano were pelted with rocks and other debris. The volcano also produced a lot of ash that choked the residents of Pompeii and its sister city, Herculaneum. The eruption had several stages and it was these later stages that proved to be so deadly.
The ash, rocks, gas and debris that had formed a massive cloud began to roll down the side of the mountain. It swept through Herculaneum first and killed the residents in an instant. A total of four surges of ash, toxic gas and rocks flowed through Herculaneum and Pompeii.
The destruction of Pompeii was terrifying both for the residents and for those that witnessed the destruction. Pliny the Elder (23 AD – August 25, 79), a Roman philosopher and author, and Pliny the Younger (61 AD – ca. 112 AD) a lawyer, both wrote about the destruction of the city in a number of their writings.
Excavation of Herculaneum and Pompeii involved digging down through the meters and meters of thick ash. A number of voids had been found in the ash. These were where the bodies of victims had fallen after they succumbed to the hot ash and toxic gas. As they decomposed, they left behind vacant spaces. These were later filled with plaster and the shapes of these lost victims again came to light. Many of these can be seen in various museums as well as in the city of Pompeii itself, which has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site