The Eruption of Vesuvius
When Mount Vesuvius erupted early in the afternoon of August 24, AD 79, the volcano had been dormant in living memory. An earthquake in AD 62 was a harbinger of the event, but no one made the connection at the time. From a villa across the bay, Pliny the Younger saw the cloud rising from the mountain and wrote an eyewitness account:
Its general appearance can best be expressed as being like a pine tree. It rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches. I imagine it was thrust upwards by the first blast . . . Broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points. . . . The buildings were now shaking with violent shocks and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from their foundations.
Pompeii was directly downwind of the volcano and the densest part of the ash-cloud fell there. The town was obliterated slowly over the course of the eruption. Most victims were killed by surges of poisonous gas. Herculaneum suffered differently: it was overwhelmed in a matter of minutes by pyroclastic surges of hot gas and rock traveling at more than fifty miles per hour. Mud flows rushed through the town, burying it to a depth of some eighty feet.
Vesuvius has been silent since 1944, but it is still an active volcano.
Beginning in the 1860s, casts were made of victims of the eruption by pumping plaster into cavities left by the organic matter that had decayed. Displayed among the ruins of Pompeii and in the museum on the site, the casts were enthusiastically received by tourists who purchased albums that included photographs of them as souvenirs of their visit.