Pompeii dig uncovers 2000-year-old remains of rich man and slave killed by Vesuvius volcanic eruption
Archaeologists uncovered the skeleton remains of two males who perished about 2,000 years ago in Pompeii, Italy, after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The bones are thought to be those of a wealthy man and his male slave who attempted to flee the volcano’s explosion.
During an excavation of the ruins from what was once an elegant villa with a panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea on the outskirts of the ancient Roman city, parts of the skulls and bones of the two men were found.
The remains of the two victims, lying next to each other on their backs, were found in a layer of grey ash at least 2 meters (6.5 feet) deep. In 2017, a stable with the remains of three harnessed horses was also found in the same area.
In a statement issued by Pompeii officials, they said that the men apparently escaped the initial fall of ash from Mount Vesuvius but then succumbed to a powerful volcanic blast that took place the next morning. The later blast “apparently invaded the area from many points, surrounding and burying the victims in ash,” the officials said.
Judging by cranial bones and teeth, one of the men was young, likely aged 18 to 25, with a spinal column with compressed discs. That finding led archaeologists to hypothesize that he was a young man who did manual labour, like that of a slave.
The other man had a robust bone structure, especially in his chest area, and died with his hands on his chest and his legs bent and spread apart.
He was estimated to have been 30- to 40-years-old, Pompeii officials said. Fragments of white paint were found near the man’s face, probably remnants of a collapsed upper wall, the officials said.
Based on the impression of fabric folds left in the ash layer, it appeared the younger man was wearing a short, pleated tunic, possibly of wool. The older victim, in addition to wearing a tunic, appeared to have had a mantle over his left shoulder, said reports.
According to a report by The Associated Press, both skeletons were found in a side room along an underground corridor, or passageway, known in ancient Roman times as a cryptoporticus, which led to to the upper level of the villa.
Pompeii archaeological park director general, Massimo Osanna said that the find was “truly exceptional”, while Italian culture minister Dario Franceschini said it underlined the importance of Pompeii as a place for study and research.
Osanna further stated, “The victims were probably looking for shelter in the cryptoporticus, in this underground space, where they thought they were better protected. Instead, on the morning of Oct. 25, 79 A.D., a blazing cloud (of volcanic material) arrived in Pompeii and…killed anyone it encountered on its way.”
The famous Mount Vesuvius is located near Naples in Italy and is well known throughout the world for its massive destructive eruption. It is also known as Vesuvio among the locals and stands 4,203 feet (1,281 meters) tall and has a semi-circular ridge called Mount Soma that rises 3,714 feet.
It has erupted over 50 times and remains an active volcano till date.
Italy said Monday it had recovered from a Belgian collector hundreds of illegally gathered archaeological finds dating as far back as the sixth century BC, worth 11 million euros.
The nearly 800 pieces “of exceptional rarity and inestimable value”, including stelae, amphorae and other works, came from clandestine excavations in Apulia in Italy’s southeastern tip, according to the Carabinieri police in charge of cultural heritage.
The investigation began in 2017 after a state archaeology lab in Apulia noticed in European art catalogues that decorative elements from a Daunian funerary stele belonging to a “wealthy Belgian collector” resembled those found within a fragment in a southern Italian museum.
That flat stone slab from Daunia—a historical region of Apulia—in the collection of the Belgian collector was missing a piece in its centre.
An official within the restoration lab noticed that the piece in the museum’s collection completed the design of a shield and a warrior on horseback that was missing on the stele.
“During the course of the search, a veritable ‘archaeological treasure’ was recovered, consisting of hundreds of Apulian figurative ceramic finds and other Daunian stelae, all illegally exported from Italy, which were then seized in Belgium,” read a statement from police.
Italy was able to repatriate the works after all the legal appeals of the collector were dismissed, police said.
Besides stelae, the collection includes vases painted with red figures, amphorae, black glazed ceramics, and numerous terracotta figurines. The pieces date back to between the sixth and third centuries BC.
In Italy, a giant water tank has been linked to prehistoric rituals.
The Noceto Vasca Votiva is a unique wood structure that was unearthed on a small hill in northern Italy in 2005. Built primarily of oak and slightly larger than a backyard swimming pool, the exact purpose of the in-ground structure has remained a mystery, as has the date of its construction. Italian researchers estimated its origins go back to the late Middle Bronze Age, sometime between 1600 and 1300 BCE.
While that gap might not seem huge, in archaeological terms it’s like comparing the culture that invented the steam engine with the one that produced the iPad.
A Cornell University team led by Sturt Manning, Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences in Classics and director of the Tree-Ring Laboratory, used dendrochronology and a form of radiocarbon dating called ‘wiggle matching to pinpoint, with 95% probability, the years in which the structure’s two main components were created: a lower tank in 1444 BCE, and an upper tank in 1432 BCE Each date has a margin of error of four years.
The finding confirms that the Noceto Vasca Votiva was built at a pivotal moment of societal change, and bolsters the Italian researchers’ theory that the structure was used for a supernatural water ritual.
The team’s paper, “Dating the Noceto Vasca Votiva, a Unique Wooden Structure of the 15th Century BCE, and the Timing of a Major Societal Change in the Bronze Age of Northern Italy,” published June 9 in PLOS ONE.
Manning has led the Tree-Ring Laboratory since 2006, and his team has advanced a range of tools and techniques that have successfully challenged common assumptions about historical artefacts and timelines. Among the lab’s specialities is tree-ring sequenced radiocarbon “wiggle-matching,” in which ancient wooden objects are dated by matching the patterns of radiocarbon isotopes from their annual growth increments (i.e., tree rings) with patterns from datasets found elsewhere around the world. This enables ultra-precise dating even when a continuous tree-ring sequence for a particular species and geographic area is not yet available.
“Working at an archaeological site, you’re often trying to do dendrochronology with relatively few samples, sometimes in less than ideal condition, because they’ve been falling apart for the last 3,500 years before you get to see them. It’s not like a healthy tree that is growing out in the wild right now,” Manning said. “We often measure the samples a number of times to extract as much signal as we can.”
The Noceto Vasca Votiva is about 12 meters long, 7 meters across and roughly four meters deep—although the depth was a little ambiguous at first.
When the site was fully excavated, the researchers found that the structure had a second tank beneath it, which had been built first but collapsed before it was finished. It was initially unclear how much time elapsed between the creation of the two tanks, which shared some of the same materials.
Judging by the size of the structure and the extensive labour that would have been required to excavate the earth and drag timber to the uphill location, the Italian researchers recognized that the Noceto Vasca Votiva was a major undertaking for its era and theorized its purpose. But they were unable to determine the precise date of its origins, and so turned to the Cornell Tree-Ring Laboratory.
Manning’s team made multiple attempts with different samples. While the wood from the Noceto site was well-preserved—a rarity, given its age—there was an unexpected challenge when the samples did not seem to fit the international radiocarbon calibration curve that is used for matching tree-ring sequences. This suggested the curve needed revising for certain time periods, and in 2020 a new version was published. The Noceto data finally fit.
By combining radiocarbon dating calibrated via dendrochronology from southern Germany, Ireland and North America, along with computer-intensive statistics, the Cornell team was able to establish a tree-ring record that spanned several hundred years. They pegged the construction of the lower and upper tanks at 1444 and 1432 BCE, respectively; and they determined the finished structure was in use for several decades before it was abandoned, for reasons that may never be known.
The new timeline is particularly significant because it synchs up with a period of enormous change in Italian prehistory.
“You’ve had one way of life in operation for hundreds of years, and then you seem to have a switch to fewer, larger settlements, more international trade, more specialization, such as textile manufacture, and a change in burial practices,” Manning said. “There is something of a pattern all around the world. Nearly every time there’s a major change in social organization, there tends often to be an episode of building what might be described as unnecessary monuments. So when you get the first states forming in Egypt, you get the pyramids. Stonehenge marks a major change in southern England. Noceto is not the scale of Stonehenge, but it has some similarities—an act of major place-making.”
Because the structure was located atop a hill and not in the centre of a village, it wasn’t used as a reservoir or well. The smooth layers of sediment that filled in the structure, and the absence of channels, implying it wasn’t used for irrigation. In addition, the researchers discovered a large set of objects deliberately deposited inside the tank, including numerous ceramic vessels, figurines and a range of stone, wood and organic items. All of that evidence indicates the structure was used in some kind of supernatural water ritual.
“It’s tempting to think it was about creating a reflective surface that you can see into, and where you put some offerings, but you’re also looking at the sky above and the linking of land, sky and water (rain),” Manning said.
Given the fact that nearby settlements in this southern edge of the Po Plain were built with dikes and terraces, and the region was agriculturally productive with much water management, water was clearly important for all aspects of the builders’ lives. At least for a time.
“The collapse of the whole social and economic system in the area around 1200 BCE seems to occur because it becomes much drier,” Manning said.
Pornographic Pompeii wall paintings reveal the raunchy services offered in ancient Roman brothels 2,000 years ago
The sexual behaviours of ancient Italians have been exposed in wall paintings found in a renowned Pompeii brothel. The ‘Lupanar of Pompeii‘ is adorned with wall murals showing vivid sex scenes that date back centuries.
The sex house was once a hangout for wealthy businessmen and politicians before the Roman city was famously wiped out by a volcanic eruption in 79 AD.
Researchers believe the erotic paintings depicting group sex and other acts may have indicated the services offered by prostitutes.
The Lupanar of Pompeii was the centre point for the doomed city’s thriving red-light district.
The ancient Roman brothel was originally discovered in the nineteenth century. It was closed but was recently re-opened to the public in October 2006.
While the brothel is neither the most luxurious nor the most important historic building in what remains of Pompeii, it is the most frequently visited by tourists from across the world.
Prostitutes at the brothel were not exclusively women.
Men, especially young former slaves, sold themselves there too – to both men and women. The erotic lives of Pompeii’s prostitutes were recently illustrated by Western University professor, Kelly Olson. Professor Olson focuses her work on the role of women in Roman society, and the apparent open sexuality visible in the many frescos and sculptures.
The Classical Studies professor travelled to the ancient city as a featured expert on Canadian broadcaster CBC’s programme ‘The Nature of Things. Speaking of life in ancient Pompeii brothels, she said: ‘It’s not a very nice place to work.’
‘It’s very small, dank and the rooms are rather dark and uncomfortable,’ she told CBC.
‘Married men could sleep with anyone as long as they kept their hands off other men’s wives,’ she said.
‘Married women were not supposed to have sex with anyone else.’
The building is located in Pompeii’s oldest district.
The two side streets that line the brothel were once dotted with taverns and inns. Upon entering the building, visitors are met by striking murals of erotic scenes painted on the walls and ceilings.
In each of the paintings, couples engage in different sexual acts.
According to historians, the paintings weren’t merely for decoration – they were catalogues detailing the speciality of the prostitute in each room. Two thousand years ago, before the devastating volcanic eruption, prostitution was legal in the Roman city.
Slaves of both sexes, many imported from Greece and other countries under Roman rule, were the primary workforce. The Unesco World Heritage Site is of special importance because, unlike other Pompeii brothels at the time, the Lupanar of Pompeii was built exclusively for prostitution appointments, serving no alternative function.
Its walls remain scarred by inscriptions left by past customers and working girls. Researchers have managed to identify 120 carved phrases, including the names of customers and employees who died almost two thousand years ago.
Many of these inscriptions include similar phrases to that one would find in a modern-day bathroom, including men boasting of their sexual prowess.
On the top floor of the building sit five rooms, each with a balcony from which the working girls would call to potential customers on the street.
Much like in ancient Rome, researchers speculate that Pompeii prostitutes were required to legally register for a licence, pay taxes, and follow separate rules to regular Pompeii women.
For example: When out on the street, Pompeii’s working girls wore strict attire – they wore a reddish-brown coat at all times, and dyed their hair blonde. Prostitutes were separated into different classes depending on where they worked and the customers they served.
Though the historic sex site has been ‘closed for business for some time, that hasn’t stopped some raunchy holidaymakers attempting to re-christen the building. In 2014, three French holidaymakers were arrested for trespassing after breaking into the brothel ruins for a late-night sex romp.
A Frenchman and two Italian women, all aged 23 to 27, allegedly broke into the Suburban Baths to fulfil their fantasies inside a former brothel that is still decorated with centuries-old wall paintings depicting explicit sex scenes.
But authorities brought the group’s middle-of-the-night threesome to a premature end.
A Long-Lost Legendary Roman Fruit Tree Germinated From 2,000-Year-Old Seeds
Plants have been produced from date palm seeds that have been buried for 2,000 years in old ruins and caves. This extraordinary achievement demonstrates the kernels’ long-term vitality after being nestled in succulent Judean dates, a fruit variety that has been lost for millennia. The findings suggest that it might be a good option for examining the lifetime of plant seeds.
From those date palm saplings, the researchers have begun to unlock the secrets of the highly sophisticated cultivation practices that produced the dates praised by Herodotus, Galen, and Pliny the Elder.
“The current study sheds light on the origins of the Judean date palm, suggesting that its cultivation, benefiting from genetically distinct eastern and western populations, arose from local or introduced eastern varieties, which only later were crossed with western varieties,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
“These findings are consistent with Judea’s location between east-west date palm diversification areas, ancient centres of date palm cultivation, and the impact of human dispersal routes at this crossroads of continents.”
In an ancient palace-fortress built by King Herod the Great, and caves located in southern Israel between the Judean Hills and the Dead Sea, archaeologists retrieved hundreds of seeds from the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera).
Then, a team of scientists, led by Sarah Sallon of Hadassah Medical Organisation in Israel, sorted through this bounty. They selected 34 seeds they thought were the most viable. One was separated out as a control; the remaining 33 were carefully soaked in water and fertiliser to encourage germination. After this process, one more was found to be damaged, and was subsequently discarded; the remaining 32 seeds were planted.
Of these, six of the seeds successfully sprouted. They were given the names Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith, Hannah and Adam. (A previous attempt by Sallon and colleagues published in 2008 produced a single sapling; it was named Methuselah.)
Seedlings in hand, the scientists could now run tests and analyses they couldn’t perform on seeds alone. First, they collected fragments of the seed shells still clinging to the roots of the plants. These were perfect for radiocarbon dating – which confirmed the seeds date back to between 1,800 and 2,400 years ago.
Then, the researchers could conduct genetic analyses of the plants themselves, comparing them to a genetic database of current data palms. This showed exchanges of genetic material from eastern date palms from the Middle East and western date palms from North Africa. This suggests sophisticated agricultural practices – deliberate breeding to introduce desirable traits into the cultivated trees.
“Described by classical writers including Theophrastus, Herodotus, Galen, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and Josephus, these valuable plantations produced dates attributed with various qualities including large size, nutritional and medicinal benefits, sweetness, and a long storage life, enabling them to be exported throughout the Roman Empire,” the researchers wrote.
“Several types of Judean dates are also described in antiquity including the exceptionally large ‘Nicolai’ variety measuring up to 11 centimetres (4.3 inches).”
Indeed, the researchers found that the ancient seeds were up to 30 per cent larger than date seeds today, which probably meant the fruit was larger, too.
And, of course, there’s the seemingly miraculous germination after so many centuries. As anyone who buys seeds for their garden knows, seeds deteriorate; the longer you have a packet of seeds sitting in storage, the fewer will germinate when you finally plant them.
If scientists can discover how the date seeds retained their viability for so long, that could have important implications for agriculture.
The once-rich date groves gradually declined after the fall of the Roman Empire. Judean dates could still have been cultivated in the 11th century CE, the researchers said, but certainly, by the 19th century, the groves were completely gone.
Now, those famous dates may make a comeback – at least for scientific purposes.
“As new information on specific gene-associated traits (e.g., fruit colour and texture) is found, we hope to reconstruct the phenotypes of this historic date palm, identify genomic regions associated with selection pressures over recent evolutionary history, and study the properties of dates produced by using ancient male seedlings to pollinate ancient females,” the researchers wrote.
“In doing so, we will more fully understand the genetics and physiology of the ancient Judean date palm once cultivated in this region.”
Stolen Roman frescoes returned to Pompeii after investigation
Three of the frescoes were retrieved by Italian police last year, while the others were discovered during the 2012 bust of illegal excavation.
Fragments of six frescoes once stolen from the walls of ancient Roman villas were returned to Pompeii in a ceremony at the archaeological site on Tuesday morning.
Three of the frescoes were recovered by a local Italian cultural heritage protection unit last year as part of a larger investigative effort to crack down on the illegal trafficking of ancient artefacts.
The objects were believed to have been taken from Stabia, an archaeological site located near Pompeii, in the 1970s, before being promptly smuggled out of the country. By the 1990s, they had been sold to collectors in America, Switzerland, and England.
The fragments from this group, which have been dated back to the first century, depict a dancer, a cherub, and the bust of a woman. They were not in the UNESCO database of stolen cultural assets when found, according to a statement from the Archaeological Park of Pompeii.
The other three frescos were discovered in 2012 when Italian police disrupted an illicit archaeological dig in Civita Giuliana, a villa located roughly 2000 feet north of the walls of ancient Pompeii.
The incident led to the establishment of a state-sponsored excavation at Civita Giuliana in 2017. It was there, in 2020, that archaeologists discovered a ceremonial chariot and the remains of a master and his slave, who were killed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
“The return of these fragments is significant for several reasons,” Massimo Osanna, the Italian Ministry of culture’s general director of museums, said in a statement.
“Each finding constitutes an important piece of the history and knowledge of a place and must always be protected and preserved.
But above all, it is a victory of legality, against the phenomenon of illicit excavations and the trafficking of works of art and ancient finds, and a confirmation of the important role of the police in the protection of cultural heritage.”
Roman Baths Emerge On The Banks Of The Cosa River In Frosinone
The remains of Roman imperial-era baths have been discovered in Frosinone, 50 miles southeast of Rome in central Italy. The complex on the left bank of the Cosa river retains sections of black-and-white mosaic floors and marble cladding lining a rectangular pool.
The baths were discovered last month during a preventive archaeology survey at the site of planned sewer work on the Ponte Della Fontana, a street named after the Roman bridge, long-since obliterated by flooding, that once crossed the Cosa river at this spot.
Very few remains from the Roman city have survived, and while Frosinone was known for its rivers and mineral springs in antiquity, there are no ancient sources documenting baths, so the discovery comes as a total surprise to archaeologists. It’s also the first archaeological evidence that the imperial Roman town occupied the left bank of the river.
Found just a few inches under street level, the surviving mosaic floors can be dated by their style to the 2nd century A.D.
The black-and-white mosaics adorning the floor of a large room depict mythical marine creatures and deities, including a taurocampus (a fish-tailed bull), a hippocampus (fish-tailed horse) over whom looms the god Triton, son of Poseidon, blowing a conch shell like a trumpet. There are others visible as shadows under a layer of plaster.
At one end of the large room is a pool lined in marble. A large proportion of the cladding is extant, as are bronze staples used to affix the marble slabs to the walls of the pool.
The pool also had a mosaic floor, albeit not a figural one; just a monochromatic white. There are patches evident from repairs done in antiquity.
The large mosaic floor also has a number of patches where tesserae were lost and squares of marble and larger, more roughly-cut tiles in varying sizes were used to fill in the blanks.
A smaller room adjacent to the large one also had a mosaic floor, although from what we can tell there were no figural motifs. It was white tile with a thick black border.
The function of this space cannot be determined, as most of the room was lost when the baths were destroyed.
Archaeologists believe their source of water was the ultimate cause of their demise. The Cosa changed course in later antiquity, shifting 30 feet and taking a bunch of the bath complex with it.
Excavations of the site are ongoing and cultural patrimony officials plan to conserve the mosaics and marble walls in situ. The remains will be covered and secured. The ultimate goal is to include them in a future Cosa River city park.
What may have been an exorcism of a vampire in Venice is now drawing bad blood among scientists arguing over whether gravediggers were attempting to defeat an undead monster.
The controversy begins with a mass grave of 16th-century plague victims on the Venetian island of Nuovo Lazzaretto. The remains of a woman there apparently had a brick shoved in her mouth, perhaps to exorcise the corpse in what may have been the first vampire burial known in archaeology, said forensic anthropologist Matteo Borrini of the University of Florence in Italy.
Vampire superstitions were common when plague devastated Europe, and much, if not all, of this folklore, could be due to misconceptions about the natural stages of decomposition, Borrini said.
The recently dead can often appear unnervingly alive. As the corpse’s skin shrinks and pulls back, for example, hair and nails may appear to grow after death.
The remains of the woman were apparently wrapped in a shroud, based on the position of her collarbone, Borrini suggested. A corpse might appear to have chewed through its shroud because of corrosive fluids it spewed as it decayed, perhaps frightening gravediggers into thinking it was a vampire.
Vampire myths link the monsters with contagions, and the plague ran rampant in Venice in 1576, killing as many as 50,000 people, nearly a third of the city, including famed Renaissance artist Titian.
The gravediggers that ran across this corpse may have wanted to prevent a vampire from ravaging the city further with pestilence, Borrini and his colleague Emilio Nuzzolese suggested in the Journal of Forensic Sciences in 2010. The “vampire” has since been discussed on Italian national TV and a National Geographic documentary.
However, now other researchers are openly deriding this claim. Where some might see an exorcism, these researchers see a brick accidentally falling into a skull’s mouth.
“I find surprising that the reviewers of an important journal such as the Journal of Forensic Sciences had given permission to publish the article of Nuzzolese and Borrini with inadequate scientific evidence to support their hypothesis,” physical anthropologist Simona Minozzi at the University of Pisa in Italy told LiveScience.
To start with, photos of the site where the purported vampire was found show her remains were surrounded by stones, bricks and tiles, Minozzi said.
They also note the jaws of corpses often gape open, allowing any number of items to fall in — for instance, they note a skeleton with a thighbone in its mouth was found in the cemetery of Vecchio Lazzaretto in Venice.
They also note there is no clear evidence of a shroud, as coffin walls might also explain the position of the collarbone. They add that the legend of the so-called nachzehrer, or “shroud-eaters,” were apparently tightly confined to the East German region and not Italy. Minozzi and her colleagues detailed their argument in the May issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences.
Minozzi called the vampire idea “nonsense.” “Unfortunately, this is a common practice in the last few years in Italy,” she said. “This is probably due to the strong cutting of funds for research in Italy, so researchers seek to attract attention and money through sensational discoveries that often have little to do with science.”
Borrini and his colleagues strongly rebut the argument over their analysis. They discussed how the physical details of the site supported their interpretation in a response in the May issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences, and that while the legend of the nachzehrer was found in Germanic areas, Venice was a crossroads during the epoch in which such legends from distant lands might have circulated.
“Regarding the criticism of my Italian colleagues, I have to admit that it’s a quite unpleasant situation,” Borrini said. “It seems that the main reasons for the interest in my research are its mass media success. Well, I want to be clear regarding this — I never looked for the media.”