One August (or possibly October) day nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman city of Pompeii fell victim to a catastrophic fate. Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that loomed only 8 kilometers (5 miles) away, erupted, releasing 100,000 times as much thermal energy as the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the second world war. Despite the warning signs, many in Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum were too poor – or physically unable – to escape. As their cities were covered in volcanic ash and pyroclastic flow, residents of the ancient vacation resort suffered one of the most gruesome deaths imaginable as their blood boiled, their flesh burned away, and their skulls exploded from the heat.
Trapped under layers of ash, the city lay forgotten for centuries. But in the mid-18th century it was rediscovered, and archaeological excavations of the city frozen in time have been providing snapshots of ancient Roman life ever since. Pompeii has given us enchanted gardens and poignant family scenes, as well as memes, myths, and a whole heap of masturbation.
Adding to this veritable treasure trove this week is the discovery of three ancient horses found in a stable in the “Villa dei Misteri”, or “Villa of Mysteries” – a find archaeologists are saying is of “rare importance.”
“The three horses … must have belonged to the ‘noblest breed’ of display animals,” explained Massimo Osanna, director of the Pompeii archaeological park. “[This is] indicated by their imposing size – likely the result of selective breeding – and the quality of their iron and bronze harnesses.”
In a testament to the city’s near-instantaneous destruction, at least one of the animals was found already harnessed, ready to help the doomed Pompeians try to escape the eruption.
The investigation started back in March, but the team has now completed the excavation, revealing the second and third horses, as well as one crucial discovery – an elaborate type of saddle and harness – that tells us who the animals’ owner may have been.
The saddle, a wooden and bronze “four horned” type that provided stability before the invention of stirrups, and the high quality of the other archaeological finds discovered in the villa, suggest the horses belonged to a high-ranking military officer – perhaps a Roman general, according to reports.
“These exceptional discoveries confirm that this was a prestigious estate, with richly frescoed and furnished rooms, and sumptuous sloping terraces facing onto the Gulf of Naples and Capri,” described Osanna. “[There was] an efficient servant’s quarter, with a farmyard, oil and wine warehouses and densely cultivated lands.”