Pompeii, in what is now southern Italy, was a bustling metropolis until an eruption of the mighty volcano Mount Vesuvius shrouded it in ash almost 2,000 years ago. The stone skeleton of this ancient city has come to light through centuries of excavation – a fascinating glimpse into another time. Still, at least a third of the Roman city remains buried, and that means the tantalizing discoveries continue.
Raffaele Martinelli, part of the archaeological site team, guided “Sunday morning” to one of the last uncovered areas, the house of the Lararium, which is not yet open to the public. During excavations, they often do not know what they are discovering. “We find a small hole in the ground,” Martinelli explained. “I usually say, ‘Please, Roberta, walk in here!'”
Conservator Roberta Prisco carefully injects plaster, filling the void left by any organic material that has decayed, be it one of the many victims of the catastrophe frozen in time or an everyday object. The plaster hardens in the shape of the object and a cast is created – in this case a two thousand year old basket.
Martinelli said, “Pompeii was destroyed with a little bit of dust, but very dense, so the shape of these small objects remains in the dust.”
Gabriel Breeding, director of the Pompeii Archaeological Park, showed Doane the Vetti’s opulent home in January after a 20-year restoration.
Doane asked, “What do you learn from these new discoveries?”
“It’s like a puzzle,” he replied. “Every piece is important.”
The objects in the Vetti house show the small details of life (like glasses and plates). “Then you add them to the overall picture,” said breeding bars. “And then you can think about it, well if that was the situation in Pompeii, what can we learn from it for the economy and society of the whole Roman Empire?”
Pompeii has been imagined in art and fictionalized in film. We know it was a pagan society. It had crowded markets, fast-food stands, and fine art with a remarkable appetite for the erotic. There were different moral concepts – slavery was practiced and gladiator fights were held. But its amphitheaters, gardens, and everyday objects feel familiar.
Raffaele Martinelli led us to one of Pompeii’s latest discoveries: a Roman bedroom. He said they had never found a Roman bed in such good condition. “You can see on this side that we still have the foot of the bed. And there is a piece of wood under the foot of the bed, probably to make the bed sturdier.”
“Like putting a piece of wood under a rocky table?” Doane asked.
“Yes, this is an everyday trace that we find.”
Sometimes these digs begin for less virtuous reasons. A tunnel into the site was originally dug by tomb robbers who dug along the walls in search of frescoes or other valuables to sell at the antiques market.
When the professionals took over, they found bodies believed to be a master and his slave fleeing the outbreak.
Gabriel Breeding Riegel says these casts of the two characters capture the story: “They help you see them in an almost frightening way,” he said. “If you look in the face of someone who died during the outbreak, I think what am I looking at? it is life And it’s a very intimate moment — the moment of death and agony.”
But they are pieces of this historical jigsaw puzzle. “Archaeology isn’t about treasure,” said breeding bar. “It’s like finding coins. The coin as a metal is not what we are looking for; it is the story [it] tells about the lives of these people.”
Still, there’s a reason to hide some of Pompeii’s stories for now — trusting that future archaeologists will be even better than today’s. Breeding bar said, “It’s likely that in the future there will be even more sophisticated methods that we can’t imagine.”
For more information:
History of the excavations of Pompeii (pompei.it)
Story produced by Mikaela Bufano. Publisher: Brian Robbins.
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