Fully furnished home uncovered in Pompeii
Despite hundreds of years of archaeological work in the ancient city, those excavating Pompeii continue to uncover amazing new finds. As announced by the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, among recent discoveries at the site is a fully furnished home, destroyed in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E. This newly excavated home offers a rare glimpse into Pompeii’s middle class, the life they lived, and the life they aspired to.
Life in the Roman world was no less diverse than our modern one. Yet, excavations have often focused on the monumental structures of powerful elites. At first, the newly discovered home in the Regio V neighborhood of Pompeii looked like many other elegant houses explored so-far at the site. But, digging deeper, excavators were met with a more complex story.
While excavating Pompeii, archaeologists uncovered a lavish lararium (a shrine to the guardian spirits of the home). Covered with paintings of idyllic landscapes, lush nature, and even a wall-to-wall hunting scene, the room could certainly be described as luxurious. In addition to these paintings, the room featured a niche for the “Lares” (guardian spirits) and two Agathodaemon serpents (representing prosperity and luck).
As later excavations continued to uncover additional rooms in the “House of the lararium,” an even more intriguing and complex story surfaced, one of a middle-class family having to choose where to spend their money and where to save. The excavations of the house revealed four additional rooms — two on the top floor of the house and two on the bottom floor. These rooms were constructed around the lararium. Yet they were far less ornate.
The two ground-floor rooms were identified as a bedroom and a storage room. Within both rooms, the team recovered many of the furnishings that the home had held at the moment of the city’s destruction. While some objects survived complete, others had been destroyed by fire during the disaster or deteriorated since, leaving a void in the cinerite (volcanic ash). Excavators were able to make casts of the lost objects by pouring liquid plaster into the cavities left behind.
Within the bedroom, the team was able to make casts of the bed, a wooden chest, and a table. The cot was of simple construction — made of ropes tied across a frame and covered with a piece of fabric upon which the owner would have lain. The nearby chest and table both offered interesting finds, including glassware and a double-spouted pottery lamp with a bas-relief depicting the transformation of Zeus into an eagle.
The storage room contained a shelf with an amphora as well as a pile of wooden planks that could have been used for repairs around the house. This room appeared to have never been finished, with a floor of beaten earth and lacking plastered walls. Just outside the storage room, the team discovered a wooden cabinet filled with jugs, amphorae, and glass plates.
Due to the catastrophic eruption of 79 C.E., many of the artifacts from the upper rooms ended up falling through into the rooms below. Among the discoveries was “the negative” of a cluster of waxed writing tablets tied together, a set of bronze vessels, and a decorated ceramic incense burner in the shape of a cradle.
Massimo Osanna, Director General of Museums, pointed out that a significant portion of the population in Roman-era Italy struggled for social status and that the “daily bread” for those people was anything but a sure thing. “In the ‘House of the lararium’ at Pompeii, the owner was able to embellish the courtyard with the lararium and the basin for the cistern with exceptional paintings, yet evidently funds were insufficient to decorate the five rooms of the house,” noted Osanna. We don’t know who lived in the house, but certainly the upper-class culture of otium (leisure) that inspired the wonderfully decorated courtyard with its lararium was more an aspiration than a lived reality for this house’s inhabitants, who then in one day lost everything. Conserved under up to 23 feet of volcanic debris, the ancient city offers a unique window into daily lives two millennia ago.
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