In October 2018 a group of archaeologists in the ruins of ancient Pompeii huddled around what appeared to be a brand new discovery. But what made them so sure? After all, this Italian region is known within specialist circles for the many unique artifacts that it has produced over the years. Yet a number of experts have since lauded this particular find as being notably exceptional.
Even before this discovery, though, Pompeii had already gained a reputation as a location that paints a vivid picture of life in ancient Rome. Over the decades, of course, numerous artifacts have been excavated from the site – not to mention sets of perfectly preserved human remains. And instances of graffiti have also served to illustrate the everyday language once spoken by the city’s inhabitants.
Moreover, the sheer wealth of discoveries that have come out of the ruins of Pompeii have been internationally recognized. Since 1997, in fact, the area has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site itself remains incredibly popular too, attracting some 2.5 million curious visitors annually.
What’s more, archaeological works continue at Pompeii – despite the fact that the town was first discovered over 250 years ago. But why are specialists still so fascinated by the area? Well, it turns out that there are many sections of the ruins that have yet to be properly scrutinized. This means that the find announced in October 2018 will likely be far from the last.
So let’s learn a little more about the dark history of Pompeii. Around 2,800 years ago, you see, the Oscan people of ancient Italy set up five hamlets. Then, a couple of centuries later – under Greek rule – these individual communities joined together to form a single center. The resulting settlement was ringed by a limestone wall.
However, the newly formed town was subsequently rocked by conflict. In roughly 424 B.C., in fact, Pompeii and its surrounding areas were taken over by the Samnites. These people – who hailed from the Italian regions of Molise and Abruzzo – left their mark on the settlement, expanding its size and shaping it with their own architecture. And less than a century later the Romans arrived in the area, ushering in their own conventions.
The Romans’ impact would turn out to be significant on the settlement too. After all, the Samnites took the side of the Roman Empire in the latter’s war against the Latins, and Pompeii itself later essentially succumbed to Roman influence. In around 290 B.C. this was made official, when the city was designated a socii – a legal associate of Rome.
In the first century B.C. Pompeii also became an actual colony of Rome – known as Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum. From here, the settlement evolved into a significant port town, with goods arriving from the ocean and subsequently being forwarded to Rome or sent further south. And from 20 B.C. onwards Pompeii even began receiving fresh water from an aqueduct.
Yet despite these technological innovations, the town was constantly under threat: Pompeii lay under the ominous shadow of the volcanic Mount Vesuvius. And it wasn’t the only settlement in the region, either, as people had been drawn to the area thanks to the particularly fertile soils found near the volcano.
But then in the year 79 A.D. disaster struck: Mount Vesuvius violently erupted. Lethal gases, ash and lava were ejected high into the sky, supposedly peaking at around 21 vertical miles. And a staggering spike of thermal energy was released during the eruption. It was apparently 100,000 times stronger than the energy that had resulted from the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.
What’s more, a Roman writer called Pliny the Younger actually bore witness to the eruption. He in fact recalled the devastating event in a pair of letters, which are the only firsthand reports of the disaster known to historians today. In one passage, the author described the cloud which arose in the wake of the eruption, comparing it to a pine tree.
Pliny the Younger wrote, “[The cloud] shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches… It appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders.”
And as this cloud began to chill, ash and pieces of volcanic rock fell towards the ground, eventually covering Pompeii and other settlements nearby. It supposedly became a challenge to even breathe the air in, and a number of buildings in the town began to crumble. Then – devastatingly – something known as a pyroclastic surge came down from the mountain, wiping out all life that stood in its path.
For those who don’t know, a pyroclastic surge is a combination of incredibly hot rocks and toxic gases that rush out of a volcano in the wake of an eruption. In the case of the disaster at Mount Vesuvius, the surge that traveled down the mountain apparently immediately killed anyone within a six-mile vicinity of it – even if they had sought protection inside a building. And by the end of the surge, Pompeii was completely enveloped in volcanic material.
After Pompeii had been buried, a number of people reportedly returned to the site – apparently in an attempt to retrieve anything of any value. But in the centuries that followed, the town was seemingly lost in the mists of time. In fact – excluding a few minor discoveries that failed to amount to much – Pompeii actually remained relatively obscured until the mid-18th century.
But in 1748 adventurers finally turned their attention to the Campania region – where Pompeii is situated – and in that year uncovered the lost settlement. After this initial rediscovery, more structured investigations followed in relatively quick succession. And with specialists now working at the site, something remarkable became increasingly clear: the volcanic material that had cloaked the town had actually preserved it in vivid detail.
Yes, just under two millennia after it had last been lived in, the buildings of Pompeii are still standing, and they are extraordinarily well-preserved, to boot. Common objects that regular people would have made use of were spread across the town, too, on streets or in homes. And even human remains were found strewn across the settlement – fixed in the positions in which the people had died. So it seems that Pompeii had been frozen in time by the eruption, giving archaeologists a precious glimpse into a lost world.
Since Pompeii’s rediscovery in 1748, then, excavation works have continued to take place in the area – with discoveries still being made to this day. For instance, yet another major find was announced in 2018, and this particular discovery managed to garner a number of experts’ interests.
But why were archaeologists so fascinated by the find? Well, on this occasion experts combing through the ruins of Pompeii had unearthed a room containing a shrine. And the walls were covered in intricate, brightly colored paintings that depicted different animals and plants. To further illustrate its importance, lead archaeologist Massimo Osanna told The New York Times in 2018 that the find was “exceptional.”
You see, the specific sort of shrine that had been discovered is called a lararium. But this particular one – surrounded by depictions of Roman deities – was also concealing something else: an altar that bore evidence of ritualistic behavior. Yes, the archaeologists reported that they had found evidence of charred offerings on the altar – presumably put out to appease the gods.
The room holding the lararium possessed a green space and tiny pool, too. The site hasn’t been fully explored, either, so more might still be uncovered. Yet while shrines were common in ancient Roman homes, this specific room is thought to be unique. In fact, a specialist from the University of Notre Dame named Ingrid Rowland has suggested that it points towards the homeowners having been affluent.
Speaking to The New York Times in 2018, Rowland – who has written a book about Pompeii – elaborated on her thoughts. She explained, “Every house had a lararium of some kind. [But] only the wealthiest people could have afforded a lararium inside a special chamber with a raised pool and sumptuous decorations.”
The building itself had apparently been known about as far back as the start of the 1900s. However, it had not been thoroughly investigated – so the room that housed the shrine had remained obscured. But experts apparently hope that its recent discovery may help further illuminate our understanding of everyday Roman life and belief.
The paintings found on the walls of the room – as with so much else at Pompeii – have been remarkably well-preserved by the ash of Mount Vesuvius too. And the creatures and plants that adorn the walls have remained so vibrant and recognizable that the entire structure has been given a new moniker: the House of the Enchanted Garden.
“It is a marvelous and enigmatic space,” Osanna told The Telegraph in 2018. “It will need to be studied in great detail.” And with some particularly strange depictions pasted upon the shrine’s walls, some expert analysis will likely be necessary. So who knows what the site might in time reveal about ancient Rome?
For instance, in one section of the room, excavators discovered a depiction of a pair of snakes. It’s been suggested that these creatures were acting as defenders, used to protect the shrine against malevolent specters. Other paintings in the room, meanwhile, portray birds, horses and some sort of strange being with a human’s body topped with a canine’s head.
Yet exactly what this human-dog hybrid is supposed to represent remains unclear. Rowland has suggested that it might well be a Roman depiction of an Egyptian deity known as Anubis. After all, she said to The New York Times in 2018 that “the Pompeiians, like most Romans, were fascinated by Egypt.”
There are apparently other stories from the period that might also explain the mysterious painting’s existence. For instance, Rowland told The New York Times, “There are also ancient tales of dog-headed people in the East who had excellent, just [governments] and communicated by barking.”
Elsewhere in the room, a section of red wall depicts a hunting scenario, showing a couple of dogs pursuing a black boar. According to a press release put together by the archaeological team, this might be representative of good triumphing over bad.
And as is common in Roman architectural artworks, certain details in the designs appear to have been included so as to achieve optical illusions for those viewing them. For instance, a peacock is painted onto the wall in such a way as to give the impression that it’s actually sauntering along the real-life ground.
It’s thought that the integrity of this optical illusion would have been further cemented by a flowerbed positioned in front of the peacock. Excited by the find, Osanna explained to The Wall Street Journal in 2018, “It is the first time that such complex decoration has been found in a space dedicated to worship inside a house.”
Of course, paintings have been previously discovered within the ruins of Pompeii. Yet the earliest of these – along with other finds – were sometimes excavated in a more reckless manner. And this occasionally rough treatment meant that some of the images deteriorated, so they don’t quite appear how they would have done when they were first found.
You see, before being rediscovered, the ruins of Pompeii weren’t left open to the elements. Following excavation, though, the town’s buildings and a number of their precious artworks have been exposed to bad weather and light exposure. And that’s not the only threat these priceless artifacts have faced: sabotage and larceny have also been reported.
Historian Henri de Saint-Blanquat elaborated on the threats to Pompeii’s heritage in an interview with scientific magazine Science et Avenir. He told the publication, “The city’s second existence began with its gradual rediscovery in the 18th century. But just when Pompeii was being rediscovered, it began to die its second death.”
And de Saint-Blanquat elaborated on the fact that the site has been interfered with by thieves and vandals following its rediscovery, sarcastically commenting, “What fun to carry off statues and fling around inscribed bronze plaques!” He also posited that Pompeii had subsequently been left vulnerable to weather conditions and manmade contamination. The historian added, “Pompeii suffers from pollution. The worst forms of damage are of human origin.”
But the threats to Pompeii don’t just come from humans: wild dogs can be problematic, too. During the 1980s, for instance, measures were taken to remove some untamed canines that had begun congregating in buildings located in the town. Hundreds of the creatures were apparently living in the historic site, and they ultimately caused harm to parts of Pompeii as well as being hostile towards some visitors.
Tourism in Pompeii has been a particularly double-edged sword, too. With millions of people passing through each year, the site has been damaged by visitors – sometimes on purpose. Nevertheless, it has had some positive effect: all revenue raised from tourism is funneled back into looking after Pompeii. And those looking round the historic town are also taught more about the challenges facing the area.
On the other hand, this huge influx of visitors means that the ruins are faced with more instances of wear and tear. Pathways are worn down by lines of people, and chunks might – accidentally or otherwise – be taken out of rock. And people inadvertently rubbing up against artworks might also contribute towards their disintegration.
Apparently, though, around a third of Pompeii remains unexplored to this very day. Yet with all the problems that come with excavation, perhaps this is for the best. After all, although the remaining ruins undoubtedly hold many treasures that might contribute towards our understanding of ancient Roman life, they may also be at risk of damage. So, until their integrity can be assured, it’s understandable that experts might wish to err on the side of caution.
Speaking to The New York Times in 2018, Classics professor Mary Beard from Cambridge University argued the merits of keeping some treasures of Pompeii secret. She said, “[The unexplored parts of Pompeii are] safest under the ground, and one day there will be even better techniques for understanding it than we have. But it is very exciting just to have a few new discoveries.” And the lararium found within the House of the Enchanted Garden is undoubtedly one of these thrilling finds. As for what archaeologists will discover next, though, only time will tell.