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
I am indebted to Jeff Miller for reminding me that “In Search of Stabia” is the name of an exhibition at the Antiquarium of Pompeii and will be on display through January 31, 2019. In their words,
...the exhibit presents a voyage of discovery through the history of Ancient Stabiae, using evidence left to us by the finds from the Necropolis of Madonna delle Grazie, with its numerous burials, as well as...with the votive offerings found there which were connected to women, and the protection of fertility and of giving birth... Together they are of great importance in the reconstruction...of the Stabian territory...in pre-Roman times.To clear up confusion, Stabiae is the ancient name for Stabia. The name probably comes from Stabilum the Latin and Oscan word for a stable, animal shed. You can use whatever you want. The exhibit says In Search of Stabia and goes on to talk about Stabiae. The same thing happens in Baiae/Baia across the gulf of Naples to the west.
With that, Albert Einstein and I remind casual visitors to the area around Mt. Vesuvius to take advantage of the fourth dimension, Time, and remember that as you wander from, say, Herculaneum over to Pompeii and up the coast to Stabiae, you are moving up and down the valleys and peaks of time that all got pretty much time-flattened by a single great volcanic eruption in 79 AD. The towns you see in the image (right) were just blanked out into an anonymous dimensionless grey. But remember that the Romans did not found Pompeii; they just found it and took it over. Between the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 6th century BC, changes in settlement dynamics were triggered by the arrival of new peoples onto the coast, such as the Opicians, Greeks, Oscans, and Etruscans, all different peoples living at different times, but sequentially in the same places. Then came the Romans. They were late-comers. Not last-comers, just late. (Remember that the 7th century runs from 699 down to 600. It runs backwards, I know, but you're traveling in time, anyway, so what do you care? Also, the "end", that is, the "second half" of the 7th century BC is 650 down to 600. The last half is logically the one that comes later in time. I use BC and not BCE (Before Common Era) because it's important to our cultural history to acknowledge why we have the calendar we have. I mean, no one actually says "Bee Cee Ee", right?
Stabia and other cities affected by the eruption of Vesuvius. The black cloud represents the general distribution of ash and cinder. Modern coast lines are shown. credit: MapMaster, Wikipedia.
So, there are two ways to learn about Stabiae. One is to go to the display in Pompeii of the necropolis of the Madonna delle Grazie. It offers us information on the inhabitants of the ancient centers which surrounded Pompeii, one of which was Stabiae. These are largely ceramic finds (image) from around 300 tombs spread out over an area of around 15,000m2 (around 4 acres). They span a period from the second half of the 7th century BC (650-600) until the end of the 3rd century (450-401 BC); they are pit grave, stone coffin or tile-covered burials.
Villa San Marco, peristyle, that is, a continuous
porch formed by a row of columns, often around
a courtyard. Photo credit: mentnafunangann
Or you can actually go to Stabiae and look at the archeological digs of the villas and rustic farmhouses. Stabiae was an ancient city on its own, a port well before Roman times, but became a Roman port and town. It was the ancient version of the modern town, Castellammare di Stabia, about 4.5 km (2-3 mi) southwest of Pompeii. The Romans built magnificent villas and solid farms there. They were on a headland overlooking the Gulf of Naples, only 16 km (10 mi) from Vesuvius. In short, it was a seaside resort. Even in later times, the area was called Stabiae (later, Stabia). That changed symbolically in 1086, when a castle is first mentioned on the site, a Castrum ad Mare, modern Castellammare. That ancient ager Stabianus (area under the influence of Stabiae) covered what is now Castellammare di Stabia, Casola di Napoli, Gragnano, Lettere, Santa Maria la Carità and Sant'Antonio Abate. This is where Pliny the Elder "bought the farm" (plus villa and beach) during the eruption.
The archaeological remains of Stabiae were originally discovered in 1749 by an engineer working for king Charles III of Naples. The ruins were partially excavated, but then reburied and forgotten about until shorty after WWII. The site was declared an archaeological protected area in 1957, and by 1962 many of the ruins had again been uncovered. Much of the work is recent and has come to light by construction to lay a second set of underground tracks in order to "double" the Torre Annunziata-Sorrento line of the Circumvesuviana railway. Archeology has uncovered only a small part of the villas and farms that are there. You can visit at least Villa San Marco, Villa Arianna (both sections), and a few others.
There is an NPO (non-profit organization, called an ONLUS in Italian) by the English name of RAS, for Restoring Ancient Stabiae where you can donate to adopt a fresco, adopt a project, adopt an ancient Stabian, whatever. These non-profit organizations have a patchy track-record, though, and one gets the impression that there is an atmosphere of "Let's hurry before all this goes away again." They had some successful "Stabiae Nights" tours this month but are up against the BPOs (big profit organizations! My term!) of illegal building right where they want to uncover the past. But, they have to try.
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added Sept 26, 2018
Pompeii and Delos, Sister Cities
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added Oct 10, 2018
Spectacular Fresco Finds at Pompeii
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added Oct 23, 2018
Date of Famous Vesuvius Eruption is Wrong!
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added Nov 11, 2018
off-site Wine and food gardens in Pompeii
by Jason Urbanus, Archaeology Magazine April/May 2018
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added Nov 20, 2018
Leda and the Swan
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Apr 3, 2019 - Jeff Miller, our roving New World correspondent, tells me they have discovered yet another thermopolium in Pompeii. (How he knows that from way over Beyond the Great Pond beats me, since the Romans had no internet.) A thermopolium was a place that prepared hot food, ready to eat -- a restaurant, a fast-food place, and since there were about 80 of these places in Pompeii, you might think that the discovery of yet another one is no big deal. This one is significant in that it was found in the area of Pompeii currently being explored, an area that has lain untouched for, oh, about 2000 years. It has yielded some other interesting finds, some of which are mentioned above on this consolidate Pompeii. The Romans were big on benevolence, brothels, and burger joints, a pleasant, pain-free way to build a great empire. A discussion of this most recent find is on the archaeology news network blogspot here.
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Aug 16, 2019 -
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added Dec.7 , 2019 -
Archaeology News Network reports on the recent digs in Pompeii in a section that still has not been completely
excavated and continues to amaze us. This time the case in point is the large bathhouse, grander and more
opulent than Emperor Nero's thermal baths in Rome, itself. It was destroyed by the great eruption of 79 AD
before it was ever used. Much of this still hidden part of Pompeii is in an area restored under the Great Pompeii Project, launched in 2012 to save the historical site after the collapse of the 2000-year-old "House of the Gladiators."
This discovery was emotional, as well. They found the skeleton of a young child who obviously had been seeking refuge from the eruption. The site is open to visitors. There are currently 50 people — restorers, archaeologists, architects, engineers — on the Pompeii site permanently. With four million visitors (in 2019) Pompeii is the second most visited tourist site in Italy, after the Colosseum in Rome.
Thanks to Jeff Miller for pointing this out to me. Photo: Rex Features
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added Jan. 3 , 2021
Ancient Roman Snack Bar Discovered in Pompeii
It is easy to overlook the fact that much of what was buried by the famous eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD —such as the major Roman towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii— is still buried and, indeed, will remain buried because, as in the case of Herculaeum, a modern town (Ercolano) has been built on top of the old one, and you don't just march in and tear down the homes of tens of thousands of residents just to uncover the marvels of antiquity. In the case of Pompeii what you see as you go through the ruins is, indeed impressive, as you can check by going to the top of this page and scrolling down. Much of the recent work has been in a section that is currently being excavated for the first time. The new discovery is of a Thermopolium, essentially a snack bar serving hot fast-food and beverages to seated customers in a hurry to grab a bite and then rush off to build an empire. The site was buried in volcanic ash, and is exceptionally well preserved. Massimo Osanna, director general of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii spoke with news media about
the new discovery: “As well as bearing witness to daily life in Pompeii, the possibilities to analyze this thermopolium are exceptional because for the first time we have excavated a site in its entirety."
The volcanic ash meant that many items and even human remains were perfectly preserved for thousands of years. Some of the detail preserved by the volcanic ash is, indeed, almost uncomfortably personal — human remains, of course, including those of a person fleeing the eruption who was, said the director, “surprised by the burning vapors just as he had his hand on the lid of the pot he had opened”. This snack bar or stall is one of many that have been found by archaeologists in ancient Pompeii, however this one, is the first to be fully excavated. The service counter was decorated with polychrome patterns and pictures of animals that were probably on the menu, such as ducks and roosters. In some of the food pots there were tiny pieces of duck bone as well as bones from pigs, goats, fish and even snail shells. The site was partially uncovered last year and now has been revealed in its entirety. The word, itself, thermopolium — is from the Greek “thermos” for hot and “poleo” to sell. These eateries were very popular in the Roman world. Pompeii alone had around 80 of them.