The National Archaeological Museum is planning a major exhibit for January on the great eruption of Vesuvius in 79 a.d. that destroyed Pompeii. Unexpectedly, they will have something new for the exhibit —the skeletal remains, uncovered the other day, of a slave.
Archaeologists from the Japan Institute of Paleological Studies in Kyoto were working in the area of the presumed location of an ancient gate that led out from the city of Pompeii in the direction of Capua. The exact location is uncertain and has been the object of archaeological speculation for some time.
In the course of digging around, the team came across the remains of a male skeleton with a metal ring on the leg, showing where he had been chained at the calf. It was a common Roman punishment to keep unruly slaves chained at night so they couldn't flee. The skull shows evidence of having been crushed. Presumably, then, he was not suffocated by noxious fumes or overwhelmed by the flow of volcanic debris; he was probably struck by a heavier projectile thrown up by the eruption. The eruption occurred just after dawn. Still chained in place, he couldn't run.
thinks of Mark Twain's grand paragraph from
The Innocents Abroad:
|But perhaps the most poetical thing Pompeii has yielded to modern research, was that grand figure of a Roman soldier, clad in complete armor; who, true to his duty, true to his proud name of a soldier of Rome, and full of the stern courage which had given to that name its glory, stood to his post by the city gate, erect and unflinching, till the hell that raged around him burned out the dauntless spirit it could not conquer.|
[Read MT's complete passage about Naples from The Innocents Abroad.]
a function of choice, and, certainly, the
soldier so described was courageous—
heroically so. Our recently-found slave, of
course, had no choice. Yet, there is no way
to know how he behaved at the end, even
chained as he was. "Unruliness" —especially
in a slave— is not necessarily a defect of
character. There was a second skeleton, that
of a woman, found close by. Who knows if or
how he might have tried to shelter her? Or
In 1932, Universal studios released a prototypical horror film called The Mummy. It starred Boris Karloff and was magnificently eerie, much better than the slew of potboiler imitations that followed. It was a film loosely generated by popular buzz of the day surrounding the curse supposedly attached to the tomb of King Tuthankhamen ('Tut', for the tongue-tied), discovered (or desecrated, depending on whether you are an archaeologist or an ancient Egyptian) in 1922 by two Englishmen, Howard Carter and George E.S.M. Herbert, fifth Earl of Carnarvon. In the antechamber of the tomb they found a plain clay tablet on which were inscribed hieroglyphics reading, "Death will slay with his wings whoever disturbs the peace of the pharaoh." Within seven years, 22 persons involved with the discovery and excavation of the tomb had died untimely deaths.
Naples, we may have material for another film.
It is not uncommon for the superintendent of
the archaeological site at Pompeii to come to
work and find envelopes and small packages
containing bits and pieces of antiquity, items
from the ruins of Pompeii, pilfered and then
sent back by sticky-fingered tourists haunted
they haunted by something else? Could be,
because sometimes letters accompany the booty.
Some time ago, a package arrived full of
objects stolen from Pompeii. It was from
Valencia in Spain. The penitent thief claimed
to have had nothing but terrible luck ever
since he swiped the objects. He lost his job
and was then plagued by family problems; the
sender was convinced that he was the victim of
a curse put on the objects two thousand years
ago by devious citizens of Pompeii who wanted
to protect their belongings down through the
The superintendent has had goods returned from as near as Castellammare and as far away as Poland. The senders' names and addresses are usually bogus, but a number of them contain letters with the same general message: "Bad luck ever since I took the stuff. Please take it back. Release me from the curse." The good superintendent, of course, refuses to pronounce judgment on such things as ancient curses, but if it gets his stuff back, who is he to tell you what you should or shouldn't believe?
I think that the people who sell tissues, wash
your windshields and hustle cigarettes at
traffic lights in Naples are missing a golden
opportunity. In a city where astrologers and
soothsayers openly advertise, and where
everyone in my family, including me, believes
in the evil-eye, why not put curses on
personal property? Cars, for example. It would
be a symbolic way of saying, "Death will slay
with his wings whoever touches my wheels."
Maybe a brief incantation at the stoplight,
then a quick exchange of a euro or two for an
amulet, possibly in the image of Boris
Karloff, with an adhesive backing so you can
slap him up there on the dashboard right next
to whatever other medallions you happen to
have protecting you. Sort of a double-whammy.
bonus: if your car is tampered with in the
middle of the night, ancient curses don't go
off with that annoying waah-waah-waah
burglar-alarm siren that keeps you awake all
night. There's just this single, long,
blood-curdling scream. It might be a