In 79 A.D., the violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the ancient city of Pompeii and the surrounding area under layers of smoldering ash and pumice. From the time they were rediscovered and excavated beginning in the 18th century, Pompeii’s ruins have offered intrepid archaeologists a window into the lives of the city’s inhabitants, who died horribly and were frozen in time when the volcano erupted. Even today, centuries later, much of the ancient site remains buried under volcanic material. Late last week, news emerged of the latest intriguing discovery out of Pompeii: Italian and French archaeologists uncovered the skeletal remains of four humans, including an adolescent girl, in the ruins of an ancient workshop near Porto Ercolano, the gate to the road between Pompeii and the nearby city of Herculaneum.
Last month, a team of archaeologists from L’Ecole française de Rome (The French School at Rome), le Centre Jean Bérard and le Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) began excavating the site of a former workshop on the outskirts of Pompeii, which is located about 18 miles south of Naples, Italy. According to a press release issued late last week by the Archaeological Superintendency of Pompeii, they recently uncovered the skeletons of four young people, including an adolescent girl, whom they believe tried to take refuge in the back of the shop during the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
The archaeologists still don’t know exactly what the shop was used for, but it does have an oven, which they think might have been used to make bronze objects. In addition to the four skeletons, they found three gold coins dating to 74-78 A.D. and the gold-leaf-foil pendant of a necklace, shaped like a flower. The researchers are also excavating a second shop, which has a circular well dug into the ground and a spiral staircase. Both shops are located on Pompeii’s outskirts near the Porto Ercolano, the gate to the road leading to another ancient Roman town, Herculaneum.
Though these are far from the first human remains discovered at Pompeii, the new find appears especially important because so few of the previous remains—many excavated centuries ago—are associated with the locations where they were originally found. The most famous remains belong to victims who were frozen in the act of fleeing the city, and are not associated with any home or place of work. Because these four young Pompeiians do not appear to have been fleeing, but were apparently seeking shelter in the workshop, the archaeologists hope to be able to learn more about who they were and what their short lives were like.
Also unlike many of the other remains found at Pompeii, the bones of these four individuals were found in disarray. According to the archaeologists, looters probably ransacked the shop sometime after the eruption. The intruders likely tunneled in through the side walls, pushing the bodies out of the way and against the wall as they entered. In their search for buried treasures, they apparently missed the coins and pendant.
In another area of the ancient store, the archaeologists uncovered a limestone tomb dating much earlier, to the fourth century B.C. The tomb contained the remains of an adult male, lying on his back, with at least six funerary vases arranged near his arms and feet. According to the statement from local officials, the find “adds to the rare funerary testimony of the pre-Roman age.”
At the time of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in the summer of 79, Pompeii was home to some 10,000 to 20,000 people. Just after mid-day on August 24, clouds of ash, pumice and more volcanic debris began pouring down on Pompeii, quickly covering the city to a depth of more than nine feet. The Roman author Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the cataclysm from across the Bay of Naples, provided a vivid account in a letter to the Roman historian Tacitus: “Darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a dark room.”
By the time the subsequent rains and flows of ash had stopped, the total depth had grown to some 19 to 23 feet. Herculaneum was buried even deeper, smothered under as much as 80 feet (24 meters) of ash. At that point, Pompeii largely disappeared from history until 1594, when the architect Domenico Fontana stumbled on its ruins while in the process of digging a canal. Excavations of the city didn’t begin in earnest until 1748, under the Bourbon King Charles VII.
The work done at Pompeii and Herculaneum from the mid-18th century onward marked the beginning of the modern science of archaeology. In those early decades, the most spectacular artifacts—including stunning mosaics and the like—ended up decorating King Charles’ palace. Most were later moved to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, where they remain today.