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Was Pompeii destroyed two months later than we thought?

Archaeologists have just unearthed an inscription in Pompeii that suggests the Ancient Roman city might have been destroyed a full two months later than previously thought.

Was Pompeii destroyed two months later than we thought?
Mount Vesuvius towers over the ruins of Pompeii. Photo: Mario Laporta/AFP

Historians' accounts give the day that Mount Vesuvius began erupting, spewing forth a devastating cloud of ash, stone and gas, as August 22nd, 79 AD. 

But excavations in a previously unexplored part of Pompeii have uncovered an inscription that appears to be dated after the city, according to the accepted version, should have been destroyed.

Written in charcoal on the walls of a house, it reads: “XVI K NOV”, which experts believe translates to 16 (in Roman numerals), calends (the Roman term for the first day of the month, represented by K), and November.

If we assume that means “the 16th day before the calends of November”, that would date the inscription to October 17th.

Though the inscription doesn't give the year, archaeologists say it's unlikely the faint charcoal would have survived long without fading or being rubbed off.

What's more, it was found in a house that appears to have been in the process of being redecorated at the time Pompeii was destroyed, which suggests that it would have been plastered over shortly – had the occupants only had the time.

All these clues lead the site's archaeologists to believe that the inscription dates from just days before the eruption froze Pompeii in time, which they suggest could have been on October 24th, 79 AD.

The evidence for an earlier eruption comes from the one and only eyewitness account, written by historian Pliny the Younger who, aged 17, observed the disaster from the other side of the Bay of Naples.

His letters describing the eruption, while exceptionally detailed, were written some 25 years after the event. Plus, since the original documents were lost, the only records we have of them are copies made hundreds of years later during the Middle Ages – the various versions of which give different dates ranging from August to November.


Photo: Mario Laporta/AFP

Later historians have argued that the eruption must have occurred after the summer, citing the thicker garments victims seem to have been wearing at the time of their death, the fact that autumn fruits were found among the food stores, and that jars of wine – made from grapes that don't usually ripen until late September – had already been set to ferment.

Some geological evidence also supports the theory of a later eruption date: based on the distribution of the different layers of ash, researchers believe that the wind was blowing from the east when Vesuvius erupted; yet easterlies don't typically blow in the Naples area during the summer.

Italian Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli, who visited Pompeii on Monday, called the inscription “an extraordinary discovery”. 

“It may well be that a scribe made a mistake and wrote something inaccurate… but perhaps we're rewriting the history books,” he said.

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HISTORY

Italian archaeologists uncover slave room at Pompeii in ‘rare’ find

Pompeii archaeologists said Saturday they have unearthed the remains of a "slave room" in an exceptionally rare find at a Roman villa destroyed by Mount Vesuvius' eruption nearly 2,000 years ago.

Archaeologists in Pompeii who discovered a room which likely housed slaves. 
Archaeologists said the newly-discovered room in Pompeii likely housed slaves charged with maintaining chariots.  Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The little room with three beds, a ceramic pot and a wooden chest was discovered during a dig at the Villa of Civita Giuliana, a suburban villa just a few hundred metres from the rest of the ancient city.

An almost intact ornate Roman chariot was discovered here at the start of this year, and archaeologists said Saturday that the room likely housed slaves charged with maintaining and prepping the chariot.

READ ALSO: 8 things you probably didn’t know about the Romans

“This is a window into the precarious reality of people who rarely appear in historical sources, written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite,” said Pompeii’s director general Gabriel Zuchtriegel.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The “unique testimony” into how “the weakest in the ancient society lived… is certainly one of the most exciting discoveries in my life as an archaeologist,” he said in a press release.

Pompeii was buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, killing those who hadn’t managed to leave the city in time. They were either crushed by collapsing buildings or killed by thermal shock.

The 16-square metre (170-square feet) room was a cross between a bedroom and a storeroom: as well as three beds – one of which was child sized – there were eight amphorae, stashed in a corner.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The wooden chest held metal and fabric objects that seem to be part of the harnesses of the chariot horses, and a chariot shaft was found resting on one of the beds.

The remains of three horses were found in a stable in a dig earlier this year.

“The room grants us a rare insight into the daily reality of slaves, thanks to the exceptional state of preservation of the room,” the Pompeii archaeological park said.

READ ALSO: Four civilizations in Italy that pre-date the Roman Empire

Image: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

Experts had been able to make plaster casts of the beds and other objects in perishable materials which left their imprint in the cinerite — the rock made of volcanic ash — that covered them, it said.

The beds were made of several roughly worked wooden planks, which could be adjusted according to the height of the person who used them.

The webbed bases of the beds were made of ropes, covered by blankets.

While two were around 1.7 metres long, one measured just 1.4 metres, and may therefore have belonged to a child.

The archaeological park said the three slaves may have been a family.

Archaeologists found several personal objects under the beds, including amphorae for private things, ceramic jugs and what might be a chamber pot.

The room was lit by a small upper window, and there are no traces or wall decorations, just a mark believed to have been left by a lantern hung on a wall.

“This incredible new discovery at Pompeii demonstrates that today the archaeological site has become not only one of the most desirable visitor destinations in the world, but also a place where research is carried out and new and experimental technologies are employed,” said Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.

“Thanks to this important new discovery, our knowledge of the daily life of ancient Pompeians has been enriched, particularly of that element of society about which little is known even today. Pompeii is a model of study that is unique in the world.”

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The excavation is part of a programme launched in 2017 aimed at fighting illegal activity in the area, including tunnel digging to reach artefacts that can be sold on illicit markets.

The Villa of Civita Giuliana had been the target of systematic looting for years. There was evidence some of the “archaeological heritage” in this so-called Slave Room had also been lost to looters, the park said.

Damage by grave robbers in the villa had been estimated so far at almost two million euros ($2.3 million), it added.

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