In what is now southern Italy, Pompeii was a bustling metropolis, until an eruption from the mighty volcano Vesuvius engulfed it in ash nearly 2,000 years ago. The stone skeleton of this ancient city has emerged through centuries of excavations – an intriguing glimpse of another time. Yet, at least one-third of the Roman city remains buried, and that means the tantalizing discoveries continue.
Raffaele Martinelli, part of the team at the archaeological site, took “Sunday Morning” to one of the most recently uncovered sections, the House of the Lararium, not yet open to the public. When excavating, they often have no idea what they’re discovering. “In the earth we find a little hole,” Martinelli explained. “Usually I say, ‘Please, Roberta, run in here!'”
Conservator Roberta Prisco carefully pipes in plaster, filling the void left by whatever organic material disintegrated, be it one of the many victims of the disaster frozen in time, or an everyday item. The plaster hardens in the form of the object, creating a cast – in this case, of a two-thousand-year-old basket.
Martinelli said, “Pompeii was destroyed with a little dust, but hyper-dense, so that the shape of these little objects remains in the dust.”
Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Pompeii Archaeological Park, showed Doane the opulent House of the Vetti 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 at the House of the Vetti show the little details of life (such as glasses and plates). “Then you put them into the bigger picture,” Zuchtriegel said. “And then you can start thinking about, well, if this was the situation in Pompeii, what can we take from that for the economy and the society of the entire Roman Empire?”
Pompeii has been imagined in art, and fictionalized on film. We know it was a pagan society. It had crowded markets, fast food stalls, and fine art, with a remarkable appetite for the erotic. There were varying concepts of morality – slavery was practiced, and gladiator fights were held. But its amphitheaters, gardens, and daily objects feel familiar.
Raffaele Martinelli took us to one of Pompeii’s newest discoveries: a Roman bedroom. He said they’ve 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 under the foot of the bed there is a piece of wood, probably to make the bed more stable.”
“Like you’d put a piece of wood under a table that’s rocky?” asked Doane.
“Yes, this is a daily life trace that we find.”
Sometimes these excavations begin for less virtuous reasons. One tunnel into the site was initially dug by tomb raiders, who would dig along the walls in search of frescoes or anything valuable that they could then sell on the antiquities market.
Once professionals took over, they found bodies, believed to be a master and his slave fleeing the eruption.
Gabriel Zuchtriegel says these casts of the two figures capture history: “They help seeing it in an almost scary way,” he said. “If you look into the face of someone who died during the eruption, I think, what am I looking at? It’s life. And it’s a very intimate moment – the moment of death and agony.”
But they’re pieces of that historical puzzle. “Archaeology is not about treasures,” said Zuchtriegel. “It’s like, we find coins. The coin as metal is not 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 – trusting that future archaeologists will be even better than those of today. Zuchtriegel said, “It’s likely that in the future there will be even more sophisticated methods, which we can’t imagine.”
For more information:
History of excavations of Pompeii (pompei.it)
Story produced by Mikaela Bufano. Editor: Brian Robbins.
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