Imagine you’re sitting at school, bored with your lessons, looking out the window at the mountain in the distance. Then everything starts shaking! Your teacher shouts: Everybody outside! Nobody is frightened because these earthquakes have been happening a lot lately, although this one seems a lot worse! Next there is a giant explosion and a column of smoke forms nearly 15 km above the mountain. People start talking about the gods that are angry. You decide to run home as fast as your legs can carry you! Just as you arrive home, the sky turns dark. But it is only 1 o’clock in the afternoon! Maybe it’s an eclipse and the moon has covered the sun? And then it starts raining stones…
This was how the most famous volcanic eruption in history started on the 24th of August 79AD, when Mount Vesuvius, a mountain that had been quiet for 1 500 years, erupted and buried Pompeii, a town on the west coast of Italy.
Pompeii was a popular holiday destination. It was a lively town with an amphitheatre for sports and games, a few theatres, swimming pools and fountains. Some of the wealthier families even had running water in their houses. Cool sea breezes made it a lovely place to spend the hot Roman summers. The Romans loved their parties and festivals. They worshipped a number of gods and on the 23rd of August they celebrated their god of fire, Vulcan. One day later, the city of Pompeii was covered in burning ash. Vesuvius, the mountain no-one knew was a volcano, had erupted.
After the explosion and the dark cloud, it started ‘raining’ pumice stones. The molten (melted) rock from the centre of the earth had mixed with air as a result of the explosion. When it cooled it started falling to the ground – little stones that were so light they floated in the pools and fountains. Then larger more solid rocks from inside the volcano started falling, making it very dangerous for people trying to run away from the town.
The next day, more explosions meant the end for Pompeii. The hot burning ‘cloud’ of gasses, ash, molten rock and rubble rolled down the mountain, heading straight towards the town with such force walls crumbled when it hit. This is known as a ‘pyroclastic flow’ and it meant death for everything in its path. It moved at about 700 km/hr and reached temperatures of almost 1000 degrees Celsius. This heat could kill someone ten kilometres away. No-one survived!
Pompeii was buried in ash and rock more than five metres deep. It was first uncovered in 1599 when they were digging to change the course of a river. They found walls decorated with art but the pictures were too sexy, so they covered them up again! After many excavations they found holes left by the decomposed bodies. When they filled these holes with plaster, the figures were in the exact position they were in when they died. So much is known about 1st century Rome because of the things found in Pompeii.
Today Pompeii is one of Italy’s most visited tourist sites. Many volcanologists believe that Vesuvius is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world because so many people live on or near the mountain. These scientists are watching the mountain carefully so they can tell when the next one will happen. They think they will be able to get people to safety in time. But no one knows for sure!