A conscious rethink: Why is brain tissue commonly preserved in the archaeological record? Commentary on: Petrone P, Pucci P, Niola M, et al. Heat-induced brain vitrification from the Vesuvius eruption in C.E. 79. N Engl J Med 2020;382:383-4. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc1909867

Alexandra L. Morton-Hayward*, Tim Thompson, Jane E. Thomas-Oates, Stephen Buckley, Axel Petzold, Abigail Ramsøe, Sonia O’Connor, Matthew J. Collins

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Brain tissue is ubiquitous in the archaeological record. Multiple, independent studies report the finding of black, resinous or shiny brain tissue, and Petrone et al. [2020 “Heat-induced Brain Vitrification from the Vesuvius Eruption in C.E. 79.” N Engl J Med. 382: 383–384; doi:10.1056/NEJMc1909867] raise the intriguing prospect of a role for vitrification in the preservation of ancient biomolecules. However, Petrone et al. (2020) have not made their raw data available, and no detailed laboratory or analytical methodology is offered. Issues of contamination and misinterpretation hampered a decade of research in biomolecular archaeology, such that addressing these sources of bias and facilitating validation of specious findings has become both routine and of paramount importance in the discipline. We argue that the evidence they present does not support their conclusion of heat-induced vitrification of human brain tissue, and that future studies should share palaeoproteomic data in an open access repository to facilitate comparative analysis of the recovery of ancient proteins and patterns of their degradation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)87-95
Number of pages9
JournalScience and Technology of Archaeological Research
Issue number1
Early online date14 Sep 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 14 Sep 2020

Bibliographical note

© 2020 The Author(s). Published by Informa
UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis


  • Brain tissue
  • lipids
  • palaeoproteomics
  • proteins
  • soft tissue preservation
  • vitrification

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