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VESUVIUS VICTIM GETS ATTENTION - 1,915 YEARS AFTER ERUPTION

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 2 1994 12:00 a.m. MST

The Lady of Oplontis has received the best of medical attention - 1,915 years too late.

In the most detailed forensic examination of a victim of the A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, doctors in Sydney this week poked, prodded, X-rayed and scanned her fossilized remains."She choked on fine ash when the volcano produced an avalanche of hot gas," said Estelle Lazer, an archeologist and physical anthropologist at the University of Sydney. "It would have been a quick but awful death. It was probably over in about two minutes."

What remains of the woman, aged between 30 and 35 years, is startling and gruesome. Her mouth is wide open as it was when she gasped her final breath. Her arms are outstretched. She wore a bracelet. One hand clutches a small coin purse.

The Lady of Oplontis is named after the place where she was unearthed in 1984 on the northwest outskirts of the doomed Roman city of Pompeii. She was brought to Sydney this year in a touring exhibit now showing at the Australian Museum.

Lazer, an Australian who has studied the skeletons of about 300 Pompeii victims was granted permission by Italian authorities to conduct a post-mortem examination.

"She was in good health before the eruption except for four tooth cavities," said Lazer. The results of tests show the woman was asphyxiated when fine ash mixed with mucus and fatally clogged her upper respiratory system.

The ash also buried her body and encased it in what became a cementlike cast. The soft tissue of her body decomposed and leeched out, leaving only the cast on the outside and bones and teeth inside along with some remains of clothing.

Lazer said most experts theorize that the eruption of Vesuvius was similar to that of Mount St. Helens in Washington state that killed 65 people in 1980. Most of those also were asphyxiated.

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