Archaeologists have discovered an elaborate, perfectly preserved shrine in the wall of a house in Pompeii, the ancient Roman city on Italy’s western coast that was destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago by the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
As many as 30,000 people are believed to have died in that famous natural disaster in A.D. 79, many of them killed instantaneously as they tried to escape or shield themselves from the deadly volcanic flow.
The Roman writer Pliny the Younger watched the disaster from a distance, and described it in detail in letters found in the 16th century. As he tells it, the cloud of rock and gas “shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches,” casting the towns around it, including Pompeii and Herculaneum, into shadow as dark as night.
But the same clouds of ash that blanketed Pompeii preserved the colors and paintings on the walls in this newly rediscovered room by keeping out all light and water. Now, archaeologists have uncovered the images of plants, birds and animals in all their vivid glory.
Above the newly discovered shrine, a life-like peacock is painted to look as if it is walking on the surface of a real garden planted below. The altar of the shrine is decorated with eggs—a symbol of fertility, according to Massimo Osanna, the archaeologist in charge of excavations at the Pompeii site. Osanna told the New York Times that the residue inside the altar could be from food that also represented fertility, like figs, nuts or more eggs.
The shrine itself, known as a lararium because it was built to honor the household spirits called lares, was a common feature of Roman households. But in addition to the vibrantly decorated shrine, the room also contained a raised pool as well as the garden, suggesting the home’s owners were among Pompeii’s more affluent residents.
As Ingrid Rowland of the University of Notre Dame told the Times, “only the wealthiest people could have afforded a lararium inside a special chamber with a raised pool and sumptuous decorations.”
Another wall of the room is painted blood red, and features a painted hunting scene, with dogs chasing boar and deer. Another painting depicts a man with a dog’s head, which Rowland said might be a Romanized version of the Egyptian god Anubis.
Though excavations at Pompeii began in the mid-18th century, those early archaeologists were often careless and did not document what they found. Because of this, Osanna told the Times, it can be difficult for archaeologists to know what paintings and artifacts found at Pompeii looked like when they were originally discovered.
But the new discovery, of paintings left untouched since the eruption, offers a rare and tantalizing glimpse into the world frozen in time by that disaster—a world that, for thousands of people, disappeared in the space of an instant.