History GCSE: How did the victims of Pompeii die?

A description of how and why ideas about the cause of death of the victims killed in Pompeii by Vesuvius in 79 AD have changed over time, and as a result of new analyses of existing evidence.

The cast of a man responsible for transporting goods through the city using a mule is observed.

He appears to be crouching and protecting his mouth and nose with his hands, leading scientists to initially conclude that the victims died from suffocation as a result of the fine ash.

However, many casts show a ‘puglistic attitude’ as if they were fighting off an attacker.

Dr Peter Baxter from the University of Cambridge explains how this is caused during instant death from intense heat, as the muscles coagulate and shorten.

This is consistent with modern theories about Vesuvius erupting with a succession of pyroclastic currents.

The clip finishes by raising the question of why the victims’ clothes remained intact and were not destroyed by the intense heat.

This clip is from the series Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time.

Teacher Notes

Pupils could look at how evidence over time as changed theories.

This could lead to a project on what other theories have changed through new scientific discoveries.

Pupils could discuss how these scientific discoveries change our perspective on things.

Curriculum Notes

This clip will be relevant for teaching GCSE History. Appears in Edexcel, AQA, WJEC KS4/GCSE in England and Wales, CCEA GCSE in Northern Ireland and SQA National 5 in Scotland.

More from Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time

What happened when Vesuvius erupted in 79AD?
What happened at Herculaneum, the town not far from Pompeii?
Why weren't the clothes of the Pompeii victims destroyed by the heat of a pyroclastic current?
How were the casts of the victims of Pompeii made?
Can science reveal what two of the victims of Vesuvius actually looked like?