The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE brought death and destruction to the city of Pompeii and its inhabitants, although the catastrophe did at least put the local slaves out of their mortal misery. Buried in ash, these ancient servants and their stories have been lost to history for two millennia, although the excavation of a remarkably well-preserved slave room has finally shed light on their meager existence.
Announcing the fascinating discovery, the Archaeological Park of Pompeii's director general Gabriel Zuchtriegel explained that the chamber provides “a window into the precarious reality of people who rarely appear in historical sources, written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite.”
The room was unearthed in a villa within the suburban compound of Civita Giuliana, some 700 meters (2,300 feet) north of the city itself. Earlier this year, excavators stumbled upon the remains of a ceremonial chariot and three horses in a nearby stables, and the inhabitants of the newly discovered slave quarters are likely to have been charged with taking care of the vehicle and animals.
This hypothesis is backed up by the presence of a wooden cabinet containing fabric and metal objects that appear to be part of the horses’ harnesses, as well as a chariot shaft propped up against one of the beds.
Measuring just 16 square meters (170 square feet), the room contained three rudimentary beds made of wooden planks that can be adjusted according to the height of the user. Two of these beds measured 1.7 meters (5.58 feet) in length while the third was only 1.4 meters (4.6 feet) long, suggesting that the room may have been home to a slave family of two adults and a child.
In addition to housing the slaves, the small chamber doubled as a storage room, as evidenced by the presence of eight storage jars known as amphorae. Archaeologists also uncovered a chamber pot that the slaves would have used to relieve themselves.
According to the Pompeii Archaeological Park, the room’s exceptional state of preservation is down to the fact that it has remained encased in cinerite, a type of rock made from volcanic ash. While not all of the items in the slave quarter have survived, their imprint has remained intact, allowing researchers to create plaster casts of these ancient objects, just like the more famous casts of the volcano's victims.
Sadly, looters have ransacked much of Civita Giuliana over the years, and the park says that some items may have been stolen from this slave room before archaeologists had a chance to excavate it. Regardless, Zuchtriegel describes the find as “certainly one of the most exciting discoveries during my life as an archaeologist, even without the presence of great ‘treasures’.”
“The true treasure here is the human experience, in this case of the most vulnerable members of ancient society, to which this room is a unique testimony.”