Culture. Even though archaeological research is officially no longer treasure hunting, at least since the second half of the 20th century, it is almost always the richest and most conspicuous discoveries that make the news.

Pompeii slave room discovery highlights the ancient economic divide

Archaeology is a democratic discipline. But while excavations give us everything that the earth has preserved over the centuries, without hierarchies between classes of findings, it is the specialists who make choices and decide what is worthy (or convenient) to study, highlight, and, above all, present to the media. Thus, even though archaeological research is officially no longer treasure hunting, at least since the second half of the 20th century, it is almost always the richest and most conspicuous discoveries that make the news. This habit of sensationalism leads us to define the discovery of a “poor” environment as rare, unusual and even unexpected.

That is what happened on Sunday in the suburbs of Pompeii, where the excavations on the villa located in Civita Giuliana—a site that has made headlines several times in recent years with the discovery of a stable with the remains of three horses, one of which was lavishly harnessed, the skeletons of two people seeking shelter and a parade cart that was almost intact—brought to light a modest room with three beds arranged in a horseshoe pattern.

Thanks to the preservation conditions of the environment, sealed following the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD but damaged in recent times by the activities of artefact robbers, it was possible on this occasion to make plaster casts of the beds and other objects made of perishable materials that have left their mark in the layer of cinerite. The beds are made of wooden boards worked in a coarse manner, which were likely fit according to the height of those who used them: two are about 1.70 meters long, while the third measures 1.40 meters, a detail that has led the team of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii led by Gabriel Zuchtriegel to suppose that it could have been the bed of a child.

Serving for mattresses on the beds were woven ropes, whose traces are partially visible in the deposit of volcanic ash, above which were laid blankets, whose details were also recovered via the method of casts. Underneath the beds were some amphorae used to store personal effects, ceramic jugs and a “chamber pot.”

The room was illuminated by a small window positioned at the top and the walls were not decorated. According to scholars, in addition to serving as a dormitory for a group of slaves—perhaps a family—the room also served as a storeroom, as evidenced by eight amphorae crammed into the corners.

The 16-sqm lodging just brought to light is located in the area where the ceremonial chariot (currently being restored) was discovered in January, and where the stable with the remains of three horses was found in 2018. This, together with the discovery of a wooden box containing metal and fabric elements that can be tied to the harnesses of the horses and the helm of the chariot, leads us to suppose that the inhabitants of the narrow space were people assigned to the maintenance and preparation of the vehicle.

This is a cross-section of daily life at the villa, one of the many in the Pompeian territory that met needs of a productive or residential nature, which reveals the most humble aspects of Roman society, aspects that were not concealed by the ancient sources, contrary to what Zuchtriegel claims. Quite the opposite: substantial papers have been written on this topic, of which we will recall here only that of Moses I. Finley on the economy of the ancients and the moderns.

The need to further highlight the uniqueness of the discoveries, which in the case of Pompeii almost goes without saying, is a feature of the communication strategy of the Park since the direction of Massimo Osanna (now Director General of Museums at the Ministry of Culture, but always present on the “set” of the discoveries).

Also remarkable were the declarations of Minister Franceschini, who has built up the propaganda of Italian excellence in archaeological research on the “Pompeii model,” sweeping under the rug the chronic lack of funding in the cultural sector and the consequent disasters in the protection, management and enhancement of the heritage of the rest of the country (the Colosseum being an exception).

While we can only welcome with enthusiasm and scientific interest every new recovery from the past of one of the most famous sites in the world (it should also be noted that the excavations in Civita Giuliana are conducted in collaboration with the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Torre Annunziata to fight clandestine digging), it is regrettable to note the manner in which an inaccurate image of archaeology continues to be conveyed, and the manner in which the progress of knowledge regarding Vesuvian sites—derived not only from the activity of current Park officials but also from the efforts and research of the numerous ministerial and university teams (the latter from both Italian and foreign universities) that have worked or are still working in Pompeii—is being glossed over.

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