Archaeological Evidence of Pompeii & Herculaneum

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Natural disasters cause a lot of destruction. Typhoons wash away whole towns, earthquakes swallow buildings. Volcanoes cover whole towns, preserving them for centuries, as with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

Eruption

The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are located in Southern Italy, on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. People still live near the site of Herculaneum, now known as Ercolano. The town of Pompei provides workers for the Pompeii archaeological site. At the time of the eruption, both cities enjoyed commercial success, being seaports. Pompeii had a population of around 12,000-15,000, while about 4,000 to 5,000 lived in Herculaneum. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD killed thousands of people and buried the two cities.

Map of Herculaneum and Pompeii
map

Pliny the Younger provided a detailed account of the eruption in a letter to a friend a few years after the event. He had been living in a villa with his uncle, Pliny the Elder. From there he witnessed the eruption and the subsequent rain of ashes. Pliny's account is the only written eyewitness view, telling readers what happened.

Discoveries

Pompeii was discovered in the late 16th century by Domenico Fontana. Herculaneum was discovered in 1709, and excavations began in 1738. Excavation work at Pompeii didn't begin until 1748. These discoveries would mark the beginning of modern archaeology. The sites became areas of great archaeological importance in the history of western civilization.

Artifacts and Monuments

There are four categories of archaeological evidence uncovered at the sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii. These include buildings, mosaics, artifacts, and the skeletons and plasters casts of the victims. Both sites were names UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) sites in 1997, citing their cultural and historical significance.

Buildings

Like most Roman cities, both towns contained amphitheaters, houses, temples, marketplaces, paved roads, and baths. The amphitheater of Pompeii is the oldest known Roman amphitheater, built around 70-80 BC. Here is where gladiator fights took place. Another small theater, known as the Odeon, was used for less bloody entertainment such as concerts and plays. Much like housing today, the wealthy residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum had large, exquisitely decorated villas, while the poor lived in smaller apartment-like buildings,

Marketplaces were where the citizens would conduct their business. They could buy food and wine, trade goods, or even purchase some companionship. The paved roads in both cities were quite common in Roman cities.

Baths were supplied with water from aqueducts built around the areas. Baths were used not only for cleaning, but for socializing as well.

Buildings and other structures are just some of the discoveries archaeologists have made in their investigations of Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Mosaics

Mosaics were a common form of ornamentation during Roman times. Many small tiles were put together to create pictures and decorations for the houses and buildings in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Mosaics depicted everything imaginable. One famous Pompeii mosaic depicts Alexander the Great fighting in the Battle of Issus in 333 BC. Other mosaics show animals, Roman gods and goddesses, and people engaged in various activities. These were uncovered as Pompeii and Herculaneum have been excavated.

Mosaic of Alexander the Great
mosaic

Artifacts

Since Vesuvius erupted quickly and people were forced to flee for their lives, many of their possessions were left behind in their homes. Archaeologists have uncovered everything from jewelry to pottery to figurines. Commonplace items such as oil lamps and wine jars have also been discovered. Some furniture has survived, such as a child's cradle. One of the most unusual items to be discovered at Pompeii is a loaf of bread, well preserved until its discovery.

Pompeii Bread
bread

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