BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Roman Construction Site Uncovered at Pompeii

New discoveries reveal the secrets of Roman building techniques

Stacks of building materials found in the atrium of the Pompeii town house, including stone blocks, tuff, orderly rows of roof tiles. Image courtesy of Italian Ministry of Culture

Stacks of building materials found in the atrium of the Pompeii town house, including stone blocks, tuff, and orderly rows of roof tiles. Image courtesy of Italian Ministry of Culture

Researchers recently uncovered the remains of a construction site at Pompeii that remained undisturbed and preserved for nearly 2,000 years. This exciting discovery opens new windows into the past to help us understand the ancient building techniques that the Romans employed across the empire.

When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, cities in close proximity, such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, were buried in volcanic ash and left frozen in time. Because of these unique circumstances, the site of Pompeii has been of particular historical and archaeological interest for more than a century and welcomes millions of tourists a year. Alongside the Pompeii Archaeological Park’s recently launched renovation efforts, the park teamed up with researchers from the Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology (MIT) to excavate the remains of a particular domus (upper class Roman town house) in Pompeii’s city center. The domus appears to have been undergoing extensive renovations when Vesuvius erupted, essentially preserving the first-century Roman construction site under thick layers of ash.

“Achilles of Skyros” fresco discovered within the house that was undergoing renovations at the time of Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 CE. Image courtesy of Italian Ministry of Culture

“Achilles of Skyros” fresco discovered within the house that was undergoing renovations at the time of Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 CE. Image courtesy of Italian Ministry of Culture

Amid walls richly decorated with frescos of the 4th Pompeian style, including a mural of “Achilles of Skyros,” the team discovered work tools, jugs, lead weights, iron hoes, as well as various building materials. Traces of the ancient renovations were also found in the area of the lararium—the household shrine dedicated to the guardian spirits of the family—in the form of amphorae used to “extinguish” the lime used in applying plaster to the walls during construction. Other tools were discovered in various rooms of the domus, from lead weights used for “plumb lines” when putting up walls to iron hoes used for preparing mortar and working lime. More building materials were kept in a nearby house, reachable from an internal door, including piles of stone for wall construction and piles of ceramics and tiles used for making opus signinum—a type of waterproof concrete that was used in Roman buildings to reduce dampness.

Analyzing the materials and construction techniques with the help of experts from MIT, the team discovered the workers at Pompeii used an innovative process for making opus caemnticium—Roman concrete.


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The usual process involved quicklime being immersed in water to “quench” it long before it was used in the building process, creating a “slake lime” that had a plastic consistency. It was then mixed with sand and other aggregates to produce the mortar or cement used in construction. At the Pompeii site, it seems that the quicklime had not been quenched and was prepared with pozzolanic sand beforehand. This means that during construction, the cement mixture was still hot due to the ongoing thermal reaction and dried at a much quicker rate. According to press release statements made by project director Gabriel Zuchtriegel, this process was capable of significantly accelerating construction timeframes and also made renovations a much quicker process. “This seems to have been a very widespread situation at Pompeii,” said the director. “Works were underway almost everywhere, so it is probable that after the great earthquake of 62 AD, seventeen years before the eruption, there were other seismic shocks that hit the city before the cataclysm of 79 AD.”

Unfortunately, the renovation projects that were in full swing at Pompeii were ultimately left unfinished when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. However, the unique preservation of the city allows for a deeper understanding of the past. “It is a further example of how the small city of Pompeii makes us understand many things about the great Roman Empire, not least the use of cement works,” said Zuchtriegel. “Without cement we would have neither the Colosseum, nor the Pantheon, nor the Baths of Caracalla. The excavations underway in Pompeii offer the possibility of observing almost directly how an ancient construction site functioned.”

As for the future, the team hopes that more secrets of Roman construction will be revealed and provide ideas for environmentally friendly and sustainable building processes.

 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Survivors of Mount Vesuvius

The Destruction of Pompeii—God’s Revenge?

Excavating Pompeii’s Middle Class

Pompeii Fast Food Restaurant Uncovered

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:


How to Find a Brothel in Pompeii
Climbing Vesuvius
The Destruction of Pompeii- God’s Revenge?

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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