From gorgeous artworks to grimacing corpses, archaeologists are still uncovering the truth about life—and death—in the doomed city
If you stand inside the ruins of Pompeii and listen very, very hard, you can almost hear the creaking of cart wheels, the tumult of the marketplace, the echoes of Roman voices. Few modern visitors would care to conjure the ghost city’s most striking feature, its appalling stench—togas were brightened by bleaching with sulfur fumes, animal and human waste flowed down streets whenever it rained heavily—but on this pleasantly piney day in early spring,
Pompeii has that peculiar stillness of a place where calamity has come and gone. There’s a whiff of mimosa and orange blossom in the salt air until, suddenly, the wind swoops down the “Vicolo dei Balconi,” Alley of the Balconies, kicking up the ancient dust along with it.
In A.D. 79, when Mount Vesuvius rumbled to life after being dormant for nearly 300 years, the alley was entombed and its balconies largely incinerated in the cascades of scorching ash and superheated toxic gases known as pyroclastic surges that brought instant death to the residents of Pompeii. Archaeologists discovered and unearthed the Vicolo dei Balconi only last year, in a part of the site called Regio V, which is not yet open to the public.
The alleyway turned out to be lined with grand houses, some with intact balconies, some with amphorae—the terra-cotta containers used to hold wine, oil and garum, a sauce made from fermented fish intestines. Now, like nearly all the other scents of Rome’s classical era, the once pungent garum is virtually odorless.
Part of the “Grande Progetto Pompei,” or Great Pompeii Project, the $140 million conservation and restoration program launched in 2012 and largely underwritten by the European Union, the Regio V dig has already yielded skeletons, coins, a wooden bed, a stable harboring the remains of a thoroughbred horse (bronze-plated wooden horns on the saddle; iron harness with small bronze studs), gorgeously preserved frescoes, murals and mosaics of mythological figures, and other dazzling examples of ancient Roman artistry.
That’s a surprisingly rich cache for what is arguably the most famous archaeological site in the world. But until now Pompeii has never been subjected to fully scientific excavation techniques. Almost as soon as the clouds of choking volcanic dust had settled, tunneling plunderers—or returning homeowners—grabbed whatever treasures they could. Even during the 1950s, the artifacts that researchers and others found were deemed more significant than the evidence of everyday life in the year 79. So far, the most explosive information to come out of this new excavation—one that will prompt textbooks to be rewritten and scholars to re-evaluate their dates—has no material value whatsoever.
One of the central mysteries of that fateful day, long accepted as August 24, has been the incongruity of certain finds, including corpses in cool-weather clothing. Over the centuries, some scholars have bent over backward to rationalize such anomalies, while others have voiced suspicions that the date must be incorrect. Now the new dig offers the first clear alternative.
Scratched lightly, but legibly, on an unfinished wall of a house that was being refurbished when the volcano blew is a banal notation in charcoal: “in [d]ulsit pro masumis esurit[ions],” which roughly translates as “he binged on food.” While not listing a year, the graffito, likely scrawled by a builder, cites “XVI K Nov”—the 16th day before the first of November on the ancient calendar, or October 17 on the modern one.
That’s nearly two months after August 24, the fatal eruption’s official date, which originated with a letter by Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness to the catastrophe, to the Roman historian Tacitus 25 years later and transcribed over the centuries by monks.