In what is now southern Italy, Pompeii was a bustling metropolis until an eruption from the mighty volcano Vesuvius covered it in ash about 2,000 years ago. The stone skeleton of this ancient city has been uncovered through centuries of excavation – a fascinating glimpse into another time. Still, at least one-third of the Roman city remains buried, and that means alarming discoveries continue.
Raffaele Martinelli, part of the archaeological site team, took “Sunday morning” to one of the most recently uncovered sections, the House of the Lararium, which is not yet open to the public. While digging, they often have no idea what they are discovering. “We find a small hole in the Earth,” Martinelli explained. “Usually I say, ‘Please, Roberta, run here!'”
Conservator Roberta Prisco carefully pipes in plaster, filling the voids with whatever organic matter has disintegrated, whether it’s one of the disaster victims frozen in time, or everyday objects. The plaster hardens to the shape of the object, creating a cast – in this case, a two-thousand-year-old basket.
“Pompeii was destroyed with a little dust, but super-dense, so that the shape of these small objects remains in the dust,” Martinelli said.
Gabriel Zuchtrigel, director of the Pompeii Archaeological Park, showed Doane Vetti’s opulent home in January after 20 years of restoration.
Doane asked, “What will you learn from this new discovery?”
“It’s like a puzzle,” he replied. “Every part is important.”
Objects from the House of the Vetti show little details of life (such as glasses and plates). “Then you put them in the bigger picture,” Zuchtrigel said. “And then you can start thinking, well, if this is the case in Pompeii, what can we take for the economy and society of the entire 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 stalls and fine art, an extraordinary appetite for sensuality. There were different concepts of morality – slavery was practiced, and gladiatorial fights were held. But its amphitheaters, gardens and everyday objects feel familiar.
Raphael Martinelli took us to a new discovery in Pompeii: a Roman bedroom. He said they had never found a Roman bed anywhere so well preserved. “You can see on this site 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 more stable.”
“Like you’d put a piece of wood under a stone table?” asked Doan.
“Yes, it is a trace of everyday life that we find.”
Sometimes these excavations are initiated due to low virtue. A tunnel within the site was initially dug by tomb raiders, who would dig along the walls in search of frescoes or anything of value that they could later sell on the antiquities market.
Once the professionals take over, they find the bodies, believed to be a master and his slave who escaped the eruption.
Gabriel Zuchtrigel says that this cast of two personalities captures history: “They help us see it in an almost scary way,” he said. “If you look at the face of someone who died in an eruption, I’m like, what am I seeing? This is life. And it’s a very intimate moment — a moment of death and agony.”
But they are part of that historical puzzle. “Archaeology is not about treasure,” Zuchtrigel said. “It’s like, we find coins. The metal coin isn’t what we’re looking for; it’s the story (it) tells about the lives of these people.”
Still, there’s a reason to keep some of Pompeii’s stories buried for now – to trust that future archaeologists will be better than today. “There will probably be more sophisticated methods in the future that we can’t even imagine,” Zuktrigel said.
For more information:
The story was produced by Mikaela Bufano. Editor: Brian Robbins.