Ever since the ruins of Pompeii were discovered in the mid-18th century, archaeologists have been working to piece together a fuller picture of life in the ancient Roman city. From spectacular artworks to ancient restaurants, excavations often uncover things which provide an insight into everyday existence there. And now another discovery – announced in August 2019 – appears to illustrate a more ritualistic form of life that once existed in the city.
All in all, 2019 has already proven to be a fruitful year for experts working through the ruins of Pompeii. At the end of March, for instance, the finding of a Roman convenience food eatery known as a thermopolium was announced. And even though there are 80 or so thermopolia already recorded in Pompeii, each newly discovered one is useful in that it sheds light upon ancient Roman eating habits.
About six weeks before this latest thermopolium was first reported, archaeologists had announced that the atrium of a particular house had been excavated. Here, specialists had uncovered colorful walls and a depiction of the mythological figure of Narcissus. This was a man said to be handsome, yet obsessed with his own looks.
This painting of Narcissus depicts the man looking at his own reflection in water, apparently transfixed by his own appearance. According to Massimo Osanna – an archaeologist associated with the excavation works – the designs presented in this atrium were purposely lavish. He further posited that they likely came from a later period in Pompeii’s history.
Every new discovery at Pompeii ultimately adds to contemporary experts’ knowledge of how people lived during the city’s heyday. And this latest one – disclosed by archaeologists in August 2019 – is no different. It does, however, present a certain angle of ancient life. Indeed, the find appears to relate specifically to mysticism.
It could safely be said that the ruins of Pompeii are an archaeological marvel. The ancient city has been preserved in remarkably vivid detail, allowing specialists and visitors alike to really get a sense of what life there was once like. This unique preservation has everything to do with the city’s final moments.
The ruins of Pompeii are situated at the foot of Mount Vesuvius in the Italian region of Campania. In ancient times, the thriving city was apparently subjected to regular earthquakes. In fact, a Roman writer and noted citizen by the name of Pliny the Younger once observed that such events “were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania.”
However, in the year 62 A.D. Pompeii experienced a sizable earthquake which severely impaired the city. Judging by contemporaneous accounts of the damage, it’s thought that this event would have measured somewhere between 5 and 6 on the Richter Scale. This would be considered a relatively strong quake, well capable of inflicting significant destruction to a built-up area.
Properties, roadways and bridges were devastated throughout Pompeii, with the settlements of Nuceria and Herculaneum also impacted. And on top of the damage directly brought about by the quake, oil lamps shaken loose started fires in the city. Indeed, in the wake of the event, by all accounts Pompeii was in a state of turmoil.
The normal functions of the city apparently broke down in the aftermath of the quake. Those that survived, it’s been said, had to endure hunger and increased levels of crime as public order broke down. Ultimately, a significant proportion of Pompeii’s population ended up leaving to set themselves up in other Roman urban centers.
In terms of seismic activity, it’s thought that the years after the earthquake of 62 A.D. were rather tame. Yet just 17 years after this turbulent event, Pompeii was once again subjected to another extreme natural disaster. But this time around, the once-bustling city was rendered completely uninhabitable.
The date of August 20, 79 A.D., was the beginning of the end for Pompeii. This was apparently when magma started to rise up through Mount Vesuvius, resulting in some earthquakes. It’s even been said that waterways around the mountain started to run dry at this time. But after four days, events reached their climax. At an estimated time of 1:00 p.m. on August 24, Vesuvius erupted.
The top of the mountain shattered as volcanic materials spewed skyward, reaching an estimated peak of more than 9 vertical miles. Pliny the Younger witnessed this ash cloud rise, penning what is now the only known record of the event. “Its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches,” he noted.
During the eruption’s most powerful stage, this cloud is believed to have reached a height of more than 18 miles in the sky. Indeed, in excess of 165,000 tons of volcanic matter were apparently released from Vesuvius with every passing second. But of course, this material inevitably had to descend back to earth – covering everything it touched.
At a rate of almost 6 inches per hour, the volcanic material in the atmosphere started to pile up on the ground. This eventually meant that Pompeii ended up being covered in slightly less than 10 feet of the stuff. Indeed, some buildings collapsed under the ash’s load, at times killing those hiding inside.
In spite of the mayhem, by this point the catastrophe had claimed comparatively few lives. That’s to say that by the early part of August 25, numerous people were still alive and moving around throughout Pompeii. But the eruption had not reached its end just yet. In fact, the next six-hour stretch became by far the most deadly.
During this time period, a combination of rock and gas known as a pyroclastic surge was released from Vesuvius. After about five minutes, this flow reached Pompeii. Buildings were knocked down and people were burnt alive. Heat levels in this surge are said to have reached in excess of 1,450° F in places.
Pliny the Younger was on hand to record this terrible occurrence. He wrote, “A fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size… Soon afterwards, the cloud sank to Earth and covered the sea.”
In the most extreme temperatures of the pyroclastic surge, those unfortunate people that were exposed to it died immediately. Yet even those that weren’t subjected to such intense heat levels still ended up choking to death. That’s because the integrity of the air itself had been tainted by heated toxic gases and burning ash.
As the eruption neared its end, volcanic material known as accretionary lapilli began to settle over Pompeii. This covered the city and the recently deceased inhabitants that had been left there. Ultimately, it hardened – meaning that the city would be protected from the ravages of time for many subsequent centuries.
In addition to the deadly materials spewing forth from Vesuvius, the area was also subjected to earthquakes. There is even said to have been a weak tsunami in a nearby bay. But after roughly a full day, the eruption eventually came to an end. In that time, thermal energy equivalent to 100,000 of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima during World War II is calculated to have been released.
Pliny the Younger’s description of the catastrophe encapsulates the terror inflicted upon Pompeii. “Broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night,” he wrote. “It was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night.”
Covered in all that volcanic material, Pompeii was left frozen in time, trapped in a pose of its final moments. And there’s evidence to suggest that in the aftermath of the eruption, some people scoured the city for prized objects. Yet over time, the entire city was lost and erased from people’s knowledge.
Pompeii lay in obscurity for well over 1,500 years. But in 1748 it was finally rediscovered by a Spaniard called Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre. Over the following decades, a number of figures oversaw excavations on the site. Then, in 1863, a man by the name of Giuseppe Fiorelli took over.
Over the course of these initial excavations at Pompeii, gaps in the hardened volcanic material had been noted. Yet it was Fiorelli that realized that these hollows had been formed by the deceased inhabitants of Pompeii, whose flesh had rotted away. He then conceived the idea of forcing plaster into these gaps, ultimately creating effigies of the people that left them.
It’s been reported that by 2003 over 1,040 plaster models of Pompeii’s victims had been created. Of these people, 38 percent were indoors at the point of their demise – with a majority thought to have been killed by collapsing buildings. The other 62 percent are thought to have died as a result of the pyroclastic surge.
As well as the bodies found scattered throughout Pompeii, many buildings were also discovered in a preserved state. These highlighted the sheer range of facilities that were once available to the city’s ancient inhabitants. For instance, among the premises excavated were an amphitheater, some bathhouses, a food market and a brothel.
Artworks, too, have been preserved in remarkably vivid detail. Numerous murals known as frescoes have been found in Pompeii. These were created by artists painting upon moist plaster. This essentially meant that the painted images were able to endure for longer than they otherwise would have.
All of the discoveries noted in Pompeii add to our contemporary understanding of the city and the wider ancient Roman world. And with further investigations happening upon more and more artefacts, a fuller picture is in the process of being created. And now, a discovery announced in August 2019 will do its part in shedding more light on the ancient society.
Specialists working at a premises known as Casa del Giardino – or the House of the Garden – found a rotten wood container. Inside this vessel were a number of artefacts, including lucky charms and jewels. Seemingly reflecting the ritualistic tendency of its owner, this find has been described in the media as “a sorcerer’s treasure trove.”
It’s thought that this stash was left behind by its owner after they fled the volcanic eruption. Furthermore, the archaeologist Massimo Osanna has speculated that the items were owned by a woman, perhaps a slave. The objects themselves, he has posited, may have been utilized for performing rituals.
In a statement released when the find was first announced, Osanna elaborated on the potential significance of these artefacts. “They are objects of everyday life in the female world and are extraordinary because they tell micro-stories,” he said. “Biographies of the inhabitants of the city who tried to escape the eruption.”
It’s been suggested that a number of the discovered objects were actually representative of the notions of fertility and love. Many of the other items might have been used in rituals aiming to do away with bad luck. And yet more pieces are said to have been intended to take care of expectant mothers and babies.
Among the various jewels and stones uncovered in the wooden container, a bead made of glass was also found. And upon this particular bead, a likeness of the Greek deity known as Dionysus had been been etched. Dionysus was associated with wine and its production, ritualistic lunacy, theater and fertility.
Amulets – that is, objects believed to instill positive favor upon their owner – in the shape of beetles were also found. These sorts of artefacts are known as scarabs. Many scarabs have survived to the present day, though they’re most often associated with the ancient Middle East – especially Egypt.
Another room inside the premises known as Casa del Giardino was found to contain a number of human remains. In fact, it’s been reported that some 10 people were discovered inside the room. These included both women and kids. In his statement, Osanna elaborated on how experts plan to proceed with regard to this find.
“In the same house [as the one containing the box of artefacts], we discovered a room with 10 victims, including women and children,” Osanna said. “And now, we are trying to establish kinship relationships, thanks to DNA analysis. Perhaps the precious box belonged to one of these victims.”
But even before further analysis has extended our knowledge, much information has already been derived from the discovery. For instance, it can be deduced that the former owner of Casa del Giardino was a person of prominent standing. This conclusion has been drawn from the sheer quality of the jewels discovered.
In any case, further analysis will take place on the items in order to more fully learn their purpose. And at some point down the line, they are likely to be exhibited at the Palestra Grande. This is a training ground and meeting place in Pompeii which today serves as a site for displaying discovered artefacts.
The wooden box and its ritualistic contents are among numerous discoveries which have recently come out of Pompeii. In fact, following the lifting of a ban on excavations in 2018, parts of the city never before investigated have now produced interesting finds. And with a substantial proportion of the city still in need of exploration, there is surely more to come.