It’s almost impossible to walk through the ruins of Pompeii without being struck by a certain melancholy. Here’s a city stuck in the past, fixed in place by a layer of hardened ash that swept over it following the powerful volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The somber nature of the place is inescapable, then, and a new discovery has made it even more poignant. Archaeologists have discovered a room in the ruins — one that tells a dark and touching story.
The archaeologists had been excavating Civita Giuliana, a residential area less than half a mile beyond the boundaries of Pompeii proper. Their predecessors originally began work at this place more than 100 years ago, which quickly led to some remarkable discoveries.
Most notably, perhaps, a sizable villa in the neighborhood gave researchers enormous insight into life during Roman times.
Beginning in 1907, archaeologists excavated this villa and eventually managed to uncover 15 different rooms inside. Each of these was then classified into one of two different categories: farming and living quarters.
The latter, obviously, would have been for general use, whereas the former were for working. In this case, people would’ve been making wine or vegetable oils.
Civita Giuliana’s a fascinating place that can tell us a lot about ancient Roman life, but there’s a problem. The area has been ravaged by looters, who’ve secretly tunneled into the site and taken off with valuable artifacts.
And this sorry situation’s forced archaeologists to prioritize excavations here as a matter of urgency.
While it certainly isn’t ideal that archaeologists have been forced to work at Civita Giuliana in this way, the results have been undeniably fascinating. Some amazing discoveries have occurred there over the past few years, and arguably none are as incredible as the room that was announced in November 2021.
This space is special, as it tells a tragic story that’s often ignored by historians.
The whole complex where this room was found has proven to be an extremely fruitful archaeological site. Though plenty of questions still remain unanswered, experts think it was once owned by an elite member of Pompeii’s society.
And a host of incredible finds have happened there since works got underway in 2017.
One of the most impressive discoveries at the villa occurred towards the end of 2018, when archaeologists came across the remains of a large animal. They turned out to be those of a horse, complete with a saddle and a harness.
The horse being equipped in this way seemed to imply that someone was about to ride it as Mount Vesuvius erupted.
This horse is actually one of three to be discovered inside the villa. A couple more had been found in the recent past, though one of them wasn’t exactly in good shape.
That’s to say, only its legs were recovered, which must’ve been a pretty disturbing sight to behold.
The third horse was arguably the most significant find, because it was unearthed alongside a bunch of other artifacts. Objects made from wood and bronze were found, which seemed to have once served a ceremonial function.
Sadly, though, researchers believe that this site may have contained more items in the past, but they were stolen.
The way the archaeologists managed to restore the horse’s form is quite interesting. Drawing upon a centuries-old technique, they filled the hardened ash casing around the horse with some plaster.
This then set and allowed them to see the shape of the animal at the very moment the ash had covered it.
Massimo Osanna oversees archaeological works at Pompeii, and he spoke to the ANSA news organization about the horses found in the villa. He said, “It’s a very important find because it’s particularly rare.
The three horses, perhaps like the first which was discovered and analyzed, must have belonged to the ‘noblest breed’ of display animals, as indicated by their imposing size — likely the result of selective breeding — and the quality of their iron and bronze harnesses.”
A couple of years after the third horse was discovered, another notable find at the villa was announced. This time, it was a pair of humans who were excavated.
These two were on the ground, side by side. At first glance, it seemed quite touching — two pals spending their last moments together. But a closer look told researchers that maybe this pair’s relationship wasn’t quite so straightforward.
Experts think one of the men was around 35 when he died. And if his remains are anything to go by, it seems he was in pretty good shape at that point.
The researchers noted that his bones seemed pretty strong, especially in his torso. The other guy, though, was a very different story.
The other one was younger, around 22 years old. His bones weren’t in great shape at all, though, with his backbone in particular seeming to be quite damaged.
Researchers think that this was the result of hard labor, which maybe indicates something about the young man’s life. Maybe he was a slave, and other guy was his master?
Experts concluded that the pair may have survived the start of the Mount Vesuvius eruption, but then their luck quickly ran out. Even though everything around them had been covered in ash after the eruption, it seems that they stayed in the city.
The next day another blast rocked the area — and that’s when these men died.
Massimo Osanna has commented on this discovery, too, speaking to the Associated Press in November 2020. He speculated as to what the men were doing at the point when they died.
Osanna said, “The victims were probably looking for shelter... in this underground space, where they thought they were better protected.”
Unfortunately, the men were wrong. This place couldn’t possibly protect them from the sheer power of the catastrophe taking place around them.
Speaking to Reuters, Osanna elaborated on the nature of the pair’s demise. He stated, “It is a death by thermal shock, as also demonstrated by their clenched feet and hands.”
The discovery of these two men was undoubtedly compelling, but by no means would it prove to be the last. The finds just keep on coming at this villa in Civita Giuliana, as illustrated in March 2021.
That was when a grandiose chariot adorned with fancy, engraved metal was found.
The chariot was found in fantastic shape, which is actually pretty surprising. To survive the destruction of the Vesuvius eruption is one thing, but to remain so perfectly intact throughout all these centuries is quite another.
Particularly when looters have been known to frequent this very site.
The vehicle was covered in bronze and tin, which bore the etchings of mystical beings such as cupids and nymphs. It sat on four mighty wheels made of iron, which must have made it quite heavy to pull.
Maybe this arduous task was done by the horses that’d previously been discovered on the site?
Other carriages have been discovered by archaeologists in the past, but this one was quite different to the rest. Usually, such finds are quite functional and basic, but in this case decoration was clearly of great importance.
This suggests the chariot was used during special events, such as weddings or parades.
Archaeologist Eric Poehler is an expert on transportation in ancient Pompeii, and he was blown away by this find. Speaking to NPR, he remarked, “I was astounded.
Many of the vehicles I’d written about before... are your standard station wagon or vehicle for taking the kids to soccer. This is a Lamborghini. This is an outright fancy, fancy car.”
Still, as special as this Lamborghini-like chariot is, it still arguably isn’t the most important discovery to come from the villa. No, that distinction goes to a really small and plain room.
There’s nothing fancy about this space at all — so why’s it such a big deal? Well, the very fact that it’s so simple is actually what makes it significant.
This room, it seems, was once used to house slaves, which would explain why it’s so small and plainly decorated. That makes it really important, because enslaved people made up a huge proportion of ancient Rome’s population around the time Pompeii was destroyed.
Around one-fifth of the empire’s people were slaves, and their story should be told.
In a press release translated into English by NPR, a leading figure from the Archaeological Park of Pompeii spoke about how special this find was. “[This] is certainly one of the most exciting discoveries during my life as an archaeologist, even without the presence of great ‘treasures,’” Gabriel Zuchtriegel explained.
“The true treasure here is the human experience, in this case of the most vulnerable members of ancient society, to which this room is a unique testimony.”
The room was small, encompassing a mere 170 square feet of space. The walls were bare and not much furniture was found inside.
It was dark, too, with sunlight only able to enter the space via a small gap up high. Life here must’ve been tough.
Just as the archaeologists had reformed the horses using the plaster technique, they did the same thing with objects inside this room. This meant that they were able to see the way the place had looked when Mount Vesuvius went off.
So all the items inside the space at that time could now be seen firsthand.
Three beds were found to have been in the room, with two of these measuring up at a little over 5 feet long. The other bed was about a foot shorter, and all three were made with wooden frames and ropes.
They each had fabric sheeting over them.
The fact that one of these three beds was smaller than the other two is potentially quite telling. It implies that it was for a kid, which in turn suggests that the room was home to a whole family.
The idea of them living in these conditions is saddening, of course, but it’s important to investigate these things.
The archaeologists also discovered a closed container made from wood inside the room. When they eventually managed to crack this thing open, they saw a bunch of items made from fabric and metal.
One theory’s that these artifacts were sections from a harness, which, in turn, has led to the idea that these people may have been charged with looking after the fancy chariot that was also found in the villa.
Besides the wooden box and its contents, the archaeologists also came across a bunch of other containers at the edge of the room, plus a couple more under the beds.
They’ve speculated that maybe the people who lived here used the latter vessels to store whatever things they owned.
The room’s extremely cramped and uncomfortable, and that really struck a chord with Zuchtriegel. In a press release that was later translated into English by The Guardian, he couldn’t hide his empathy.
He observed, “What’s most striking is the cramped and precarious nature of this room, which is something between a dormitory and a storage room.”
Zuchtriegel was clearly pleased to tell the story of the slaves who’d lived in this room.
He added, “This is a window into the precarious reality of people who seldom appear in historical sources that were written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite, and who as a result risk remaining invisible in the great historical accounts.”
This room is being subjected to ongoing archaeological investigations, as it clearly has a big story to tell. So little information is presently out there about the oppressed members of ancient Roman society, and discoveries like this offer an opportunity to right that wrong.
It’ll just take a lot more work.
Pompeii’s known to have once been inhabited by affluent members of Roman society. Archaeological works throughout this unique site have gone some way towards shining a light on the reality of these people, but what of the others?
What was it like to be among the lowest echelons of that society?
This room finally gives us a little insight into the grueling realities that slaves were forced to endure in ancient Pompeii. If this space is anything to go by, it seems that they lived in cramped, uncomfortable conditions and were afforded few in any luxuries.
Their masters, meanwhile, enjoyed all sorts of niceties.
The ruins of Pompeii have already shown experts so much about what life was like in that doomed city, right up to the moment it was wiped out. The foods people ate, the ceremonies they took part in — in short, all the things that made up normal, everyday life.
This room, though, has specifically added color to the story of people whom history’s tended to forget about.
Dario Franceschini’s the minister of culture in Italy, so he naturally has an interest in the discoveries at Pompeii.
In a statement released following the slave room’s discovery, he said, “This incredible new discovery at Pompeii demonstrates that today the archaeological site has become not only one of the most desirable visitor destinations in the world, but also a place where research is carried out and new and experimental technologies are employed.”.
Continuing to sing the city’s praises, the minister added, “Thanks to this important new discovery, our knowledge of the daily life of ancient Pompeians has been enriched, particularly of that element of society about which little is known even today.
Pompeii is a model of study that’s unique in the world.”
A striking feature of Pompeii is that, while it’s obviously very different to a contemporary city in many ways, there are definite parallels, too. As Massimo Osanna pointed out to Smithsonian magazine in 2019, “Pompeii has so many similarities with our present.
Its past is never completely in the past.”