Unique Ceremonial Chariot In Pompeii Excavated From Under Volcanic Material


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

chariot in ash

This partially excavated chariot has now been entirely removed from Pompeii's compacted volcanic ash, and found to be decorated to an unprecedented extent. Image Credi: Archaeological Park of Pompeii

A chariot found buried at Pompeii is almost intact, providing archaeologists with possibly the best example of this important item of Roman culture. However, the world is lucky to have it – looters seeking to steal the city’s buried treasure dug tunnels on either side of the chariot, possibly carrying away precious items, but missing the big prize.

The discovery is a ceremonial four-wheeled chariot. Volcanic burial mineralized the wooden components, and preserved imprints of softer parts such as ropes that have since rotted away. The iron structure and bronze and tin decorations – which might have been pilfered in other circumstances – are preserved almost perfectly.


The chariot was lodged at the stables of Civita Giuliana, one of the most substantial villas buried by Vesuvius. Three buried horses have already been found at the site, one still in its harness. The chariot “Represents a unique find – which has no parallel in Italy thus far – in an excellent state of preservation,” a statement from the Archaeological Park of Pompeii claims.

An iron chariot wheel extracted at Civita Giuliana. Image Credit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii

Its survival is described by the Park as “miraculous” since both the walls and ceiling of the room the chariot was found in collapsed in the course of the eruption, yet failed to crush the vehicle. The miracle could easily have been undone in the process of excavation, however. Archaeologists responded by pouring plaster into the spaces left by long-lost organic material. The entire chariot has now been moved to the Park’s laboratory.

Roman chariots have been found before, including at Pompeii, but the Civia Giuliana chariot is something different, used for festivals and parades. The artwork depicts satyrs and nymphs, suggesting the possibility the chariot was used in wedding ceremonies, perhaps to transport the bride. Some of the smaller representations, however, are explicit enough they would seldom be considered suitable for such purposes today, giving a new meaning to the expression “Chariots of Fire.”

The Romans were not shy about representing sexual activity, including it seems on chariots intended for festive occasions, possibly including upper-class weddings. Image Credit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii

The closest comparable discovery is a chariot found 15 years ago in a burial mound in northern Greece, but even that carries far less elaborate decorations than this one.


The city of Pompeii was buried in volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE. The tragedy for the population of the city has been a gift for historians and archaeologists, providing insight into Roman life to an extent we would never have gained any other way.

 Despite more than two centuries of organized digging at the site, major finds such as the chariot and the recent discovery of an outdoor restaurant, revealing the Roman taste in fast food, show we are far from exhausting Pompeii’s riches.

Unfortunately, people are willing to pay immense amounts of money for these finds, hiding them away from the rest of the world. Where there is a market there are people willing to supply it, however illegally or unethically. Thieves have tunneled into unexcavated parts of Pompeii and stolen who knows what. The Park authorities are teaming with the Public Prosecutor’s office of Torre Annunziata to try to catch the criminals, working overtime at particularly promising sites to secure them before they can be stolen. Among other things, this meant working every weekend since January 7 when the presence of the chariot was first identified to secure it before pieces could be removed.