British Museum blog

Pompeii and Herculaneum: two ordinary cities with an extraordinary story

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79. © DeAgostini/SuperStock

David Prudames, British Museum

In AD 79, late in the year, two cities – Herculaneum and Pompeii – along with various small towns, villages, and farms in the south of Italy were wiped out in just 24 hours by the catastrophic eruption of the nearby Mount Vesuvius. This event ended the life of the cities, but preserved them to be rediscovered by archaeologists nearly 1,700 years later.

These were not extraordinary cities; they died in an extraordinary way, but they were ordinary ancient Roman cities, and because of this they have been able to become a lens through which we can see and understand a whole civilisation.

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79. © DeAgostini/SuperStock

In spring 2013, these two cities and their unique story will be explored in a major exhibition at the British Museum, that will – in the words of Museum Director, Neil MacGregor – be a chance ‘to visit the cities and to visit the houses in the cities; to be inside a Roman household, inside a Roman street; to know what it felt like, to know what was going on.’

Through objects from the British Museum collection and an immensely generous loan of 250 objects from Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum – many of which have never been seen outside Italy – the exhibition will focus on the daily lives of the ordinary people who lived there.

Exhibition curator, Paul Roberts explained how in exploring daily life we have a chance to see how people like us would have lived in an ancient reflection of our own lives:

‘Daily life; the home, and domestic life, it’s something that we all share. The home gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore how people like us lived in Roman times: perhaps they didn’t all go to the baths, or the amphitheatre, but poor or wealthy they all had a home.’

Through some of the most famous objects to have emerged from the two cities, and finds unearthed during recent archaeological work there, the exhibition will look at the make-up and activity of homes – and the people who lived in them – at both Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st Century AD, Pompeii

Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st Century AD, Pompeii

Often the stories revealed are surprising. For example, from Pompeii, the large industrial centre of the region with a population of around 12-15,000, comes a statue of a woman commemorating her funding – with her own money – of the largest building in the forum, the heart of the city. This, in a male-dominated society where women might not usually be known as the rich patrons of civic monuments.

While at the same time, the more mundane elements of life are revealed in objects such as an extraordinarily well-preserved loaf of bread that, in Paul’s words, ‘went in the oven in AD 79 and came out in the 1930s’.

But of course the reason we know this story and can see these wonderful objects is because of the tragedy which struck in AD 79. Incredible finds from Herculaneum, a smaller seaside town of some 4-5,000 inhabitants, include food, leather, and wooden furniture – from a table to a baby’s cot – and survive only because they were carbonised (turned into charcoal) by the 4-500 degree Celsius volcanic avalanche that engulfed the city.

As Paul explained:

‘We can’t imagine the horror of that day, but we can see what people did. Some of them were practical, taking a lantern or a lamp to help them stumble through the total darkness of the volcanic blizzard. Other people took gold and silver in the form of coins or jewellery. One little girl took her charm bracelet with pieces from all over the Roman world and beyond, such as cowries from the Indian Ocean, amber from the Baltic, rock crystal from the Alps, faience from Egypt. She had this with her when she died on the beach at Herculaneum with hundreds of others.’

Some 2,000 years later that charm bracelet will be among the objects on display at the British Museum next year, allowing us as it does to recall and remember the real people whose lives we are so privileged to be able to see and understand:‘We had to have the death of Pompeii and Herculaneum to know so much about the people who lived there, but it’s their lives that we will be celebrating in this exhibition.’

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is open from 28 March 2013.

The exhibition is sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
In collaboration with Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Tweet using #PompeiiExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Glimpses of diet through plant remains

Philippa Ryan, British Museum

Philippa sampling a 3,100 year old hearth in a large villa (E12.10) at Amara West

I’m in Sudan looking at ancient plant remains from Amara West to investigate past diet and the potential impact of climate change on how plants were used.

This type of evidence can also provide insight into social behaviour, such as differences in diet between richer and poorer households. Additionally, identifying certain types of plant remains, such as cereal processing detritus, can help to investigate the functions of certain rooms or outdoor areas in the town.

Tools of the trade: sieves for botanical samples

The excavators take sediment samples from archaeological contexts such as hearths, ovens, floors and storage bins for botanical analysis. Back at the dig-house, I process the bags of sediment they have collected to extract the charred and desiccated plant remains – using dry-sieving and flotation.

Philippa sorting through a sample after sieving, back in the work room

At the end of the dig season, these samples will then be taken back to the British Museum, with the permission of the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums, where I will identify the seeds and fruits in conjunction with Caroline Cartwright, who is also analysing the wood charcoal. Modern analytical equipment such as a Scanning Electron Microscopes can help with the identifications.

Scanning Electron Microscope image of tamarisk charcoal from Amara West (Caroline Cartwright)

In addition, I am taking further sediment samples back for processing in the laboratory to extract phytoliths (microscopic silicified plant cells) as another way of investigating the plant record.

On the Nile near Amara West, seeking modern plant material for reference collection

Whilst here, I have also been collecting plants to compare with the ancient plant materials. I have gathered grasses, reeds and branches of trees and shrubs from the riverbanks via boat (watching out for the large crocodiles!), a trip into the desert, and from the island of Ernetta where we are living.

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The tempo of the working day gathers pace…

Tom Lyons, archaeologist

Sunrise on the Nile at Ernetta, before boarding for the commute to Amara West

Being a new member of the British Museum’s excavation team at Amara West I’ve had to adapt to a different set of working conditions including a new set of colleagues, unfamiliar archaeology, wide-ranging temperatures and a spectacular dawn commute to work on a crowded boat down the Nile.

Having left behind my regular archaeological job in Britain where one typically investigates ditches, field systems and scant remains of housing I now find myself in one of the best preserved pharaonic towns (chiefly thanks to 3000 years of windblown sand).

Collapsed doorway from an earlier house, found beneath later architecture of house E13.3-N

As I’ve worked on other archaeological projects in the near east I have encountered buildings constructed in mud brick before. Many archaeological principles remain the same and now that the excavation is nearing a close I’m very familiar with the process of revealing buried architecture among collapsed buildings, and clay floor surfaces and recovering a variety of domestic objects such as large grinding stones, ovens and masses and masses of pottery.

My task is to supervise the excavation of a narrow house dating to about 1100 BC with local workmen removing the archaeological structures and deposits after I identify, draw and describe them. This task is complicated by the fact that several different phases of architecture still exist in the same space. Distinguishing them and reconstructing the original sequence of events is a crucial component of the work.

Beginning the excavation of house E13.3-N, four weeks ago

Now that the end of this season is approaching, the tempo of the working day gathers pace – while the number of as yet unanswered questions increases.

After excavating three rooms in the building almost completely, only the standing architecture and the very earliest floors (and deposits) remain, my attention now turns to the rest of the house next door, partly excavated in 2010 during last year’s season.

Tom Lyons cleaning a door blocking in front of the house

At present we think there are three architectural phases, although identifying each one and its true extent sometimes feels like informed speculation at best – or at worst a confusing set of circular relationships. A simple sketch plan of the archaeology as you interpret it can be much more constructive than unsatisfying discussions of the buildings under the glare of the midday Saharan sun.

In most cases the answers usually reveal themselves with further digging…

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Excavating a chamber tomb

Carina Summerfield-Hill, physical anthropologist

Rami Mohamed Abdu and Abou Ad Abu Taher excavating through the roof of the western chamber

I’m one of three physical anthropologists working in Cemetery C at Amara West, and in recent days I’ve been working on a chamber tomb (Grave 234) – the largest and most exciting of grave types here.
Rami Mohamed Abdu lifting the beer jar from the shaft of grave 234

The tomb consists of a central shaft with an underground eastern and western chamber. We started excavating down into the central shaft to expose the doorway to each chamber. The sand in the shaft contained a complete Egyptian-style beer jar.

Since then, we have focused on excavating the western chamber.

The safest way to excavate it was to dig down from above, through the chamber’s roof, otherwise the fragile but heavy layers of alluvium could collapse on us. Once the chamber was exposed, we removed windblown sand which had accumulated inside.

It contains three articulated burials and a concentration of disarticulated bone that included four complete skulls.

Carina Summerfield-Hill excavating the Nubian style crouched burial

So far I have excavated one of the articulated burials towards the centre of the chamber, the feet of which poked out into the shaft.

The entire burial was within the remains of a wooden casing, and was of an adult female, fully articulated in a crouch position – this was a really pleasing discovery as it is a local Nubian tradition of burial, as opposed to the Egyptian tradition of laying the body out in an extended burial position. This is the first Nubian burial type to be found in Cemetery C!

Western chamber of Grave 234 with three articulated burials and concentration of disarticulated human remains (under cover to the right)

The western chamber also contains two further articulated burials that are extended – It is fascinating to see two different traditions in the same grave.

Over the coming days I shall be excavating these two extended burials along with the concentration of disarticulated bones, so there is a lot of work still to do.

And next we have the eastern chamber, where we have just begun removing the surface to get access.

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In the back rooms

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Large vessel (C4029) found buried in the floor of the back room

Halfway through our third season of excavations in the northwest part of the walled town, our understanding of the nature of the area, and how it changed – whether on a room-by-room or building-by-building basis – is continuing to evolve.

No two house plans are the same, undoubtedly dictated by a range of factors. Here, some of the houses needed to be built into and over existing architecture, including large vaulted storerooms. But the circumstances of individual household units could also prompt houses to be joined, divided or internally re-arranged.

Papyri contemporary with Amara West describe complex fluctuations in houses at Thebes, with numbers oscillating between six and 15 people in a short time frame, due to deaths, marriages and even divorce.

The four 20th dynasty houses excavated so far in the northwestern town have between three and four rooms each, and the back room in three of the houses has a rather different character.

View along house E13.3-N with back room far from the front door

These are small spaces – only five metres² – and as we have no evidence for windows in any of the rooms, they are likely to have been very dark. None of the three back rooms has an outside wall, thus would have stayed cool during hot days and retained warmth during the very cold nights.

How were these rooms used? It is tempting to assume some were bedrooms, but none have bed alcoves familiar from larger pharaonic houses, including villa E12.10 at Amara West.

In fact, the inhabitants may have slept in the central room, warmed by the hearth. The back of one house clearly functioned as a space for ritual activity – an ancestor bust was found there.

A notable concentration of finer pottery vessels is found in these rooms – but also objects of more glamorous materials.

Plan of house E13.3-N, with room 27 to top right

In the last weeks, we have completed excavation of the back room in house E13.3-N. The pattern continues in the earliest layers in the room – fragments of a fine calcite (Egyptian alabaster) bowl were recovered alongside faience beads, a bone earring, and a faience Taweret amulet.

Fragments of a calcite bowl (F4743) found in back room of house E13.3-N

The purpose of the niche in the back wall remains unknown. But as with one other back room, we also found a large pottery vessel buried in the floor. We have taken samples from the pot, found with its lid still in place: perhaps chemical or botanical analyses can hint at the original contents?

However, a more prosaic function for these rooms is also possible. Finding objects in a room does not mean the inhabitants used them in that space, or placed them there for safe-keeping.

Some back rooms may simply have become areas in which to place unwanted rubbish – tucked out of the way at the back of the house.

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Finding the buildings beneath

Mat Dalton, archaeologist

The later houses, excavated in 2009, with the earlier walls beginning to appear (behind scale)

In 2010, a team of workmen from Ernetta Island and I excavated a suite of rooms from two houses located next to the Governor’s Residence at Amara West. These buildings contained multiple phases of renovation, including up to five overlying floor surfaces. The rooms were also very domestic in nature, with six bread ovens and four grain grinding emplacements preserved across the phases.

Mekawi Abdel Rahman removing rubble from the plaster walls

By the end of the season we had exposed the partially destroyed and levelled remains of an older, deeper building, upon whose walls much of the architecture of our two houses had been constructed.

This year we’re excavating this older building with the aim of finding out how it was used by its ancient inhabitants, why it was replaced, and how it may have varied in use and layout from its successor.

Over the past couple of days we’ve been gradually teasing the remains of this building out of the rubble. It can be hard physical work – thick concrete-like deposits of mudbrick wall collapse, and silt fills the rooms, which make formidable barriers, and a great contrast to the loose sand we often encounter above!

The early plaster wall of building E13.7, with black painted line

At this early stage, the parts of the building we have exposed paint a very different picture from the house above. The rooms are generally much larger, with fine white plaster walls and internal decoration – rather than the ubiquitous brown mud plaster walls of the later building. Two rooms even preserve an attractive band of white and black painted plaster decoration. Intriguingly, not a single grain grinding emplacement has been found. Perhaps these rooms did not fulfil a domestic function?

Perhaps most tantalising, however, is the appearance of a fragmentary series of blue, red and white painted cornice fragments, which appear to have collapsed from a single wall in the building’s largest room. This wall seems to have been a focal point of the room – could it have been a small household shrine?

Painted mud plaster moulding emerging from the rubble in building E13.7

Over the coming weeks we’ll be continuing our work in these rooms, including exposing their original floor surfaces. We hope this further work might answer some of our questions, but as always in archaeology, it will no doubt present us with new challenges…

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A charred seed…

Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Conservator, Jamie Hood working on one of the cauldrons

The two Chiseldon cauldrons we chose to work on first were found next to each other in the pit and had corroded together.

My colleague Jamie Hood has been given the first cauldron to be removed from the ground during excavation to work on.

Although it appeared to be in one piece in the ground, it was heavily corroded with large cracks hidden by the mud and soil. It was impossible to lift whole, so was removed in four large chunks surrounded by soil. The fact that it is in pieces actually makes it better for Jamie to work on as it is easier to move, handle, and support, and also fits under a microscope.

When he first started work within a few minutes I heard: ‘WOW, look at this, a charred seed!’ from the other side of the room.

My cauldron was probably the last one placed in the pit thousands of years ago. This meant that it was resting on top of the others and was therefore the one first discovered by the metal detectorist in 2004.

Of all the cauldrons, it is in the worst condition – a chunk lifted in plaster bandages and a lot of small pieces of corroded metal. But, it might also be the most interesting.

Some small fragments of the copper alloy already cleaned have decorative scalloped edges, or, apparently, as decorative as it gets for cauldrons in the late Iron Age.

As yet we don’t know much more about this cauldron and wont until I excavate it from its soil block. However, due to its highly fragmentary condition it will not be possible to physically reconstruct it.

Instead I will try and concentrate on a virtual, or at least an intellectual reconstruction, trying to gain as much information from the fragments as possible.

A piece of one of the cauldrons

The most important areas are the rim, handles and decorative patches, and if we can relocate these and examine how they were constructed then this will tell us a great deal about the cauldron.

To make things more complicated some of Jamie’s cauldron was corroded to and lifted with mine. Trying to decide which fragments of 0.5mm metal belong to which cauldron will be very difficult and the whole process will need very careful excavation and detailed recording.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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In search of ancient Nile channels

Mark Macklin, University of Aberystwyth and
Jamie Woodward, University of Manchester

Pit dug through the ancient Nile channel at Amara West

As part of a wider international project investigating the evolution of the Nile and its major tributaries over the last 30,000 years (funded by the Australian Research Council since 2008, and more recently by The Leverhulme Trust), we have been reconstructing past river environments, channel movements, and flooding in the desert Nile of Northern Sudan.

We are especially interested in the impact that environmental change has had on riverine societies over the last 7,000 years or so.

Our research has focussed on two sections of the Sudanese Nile and involves collaboration with two British Museum field projects. The first is centred on Dongola, between the fourth and third Nile cataracts, and the second at Amara West.

The primary aim of our work at Amara West is to establish the relationship between the settlement of the New Kingdom town (about 1290-1070 BC), which is located on a former island within the River Nile, and the river channels that surround it.

Map showing the original island position of Amara West

During a reconnaissance visit in 2009 we began to investigate the sedimentary record preserved in the now abandoned channel immediately to the north of the town.

Two key questions we are hoping to answer include:

    Was the channel flowing during the New Kingdom as suggested by the town layout?
    Did the drying up of the channel affect the viability of settlement at Amara West?

This year a four metre-deep pit, shored up with 82 sandbags, was dug into the sediments infilling the now dry channel, which revealed a detailed record of past Nile floods.

Mark Macklin and Jamie Woodward examining layers of sand and river silt

On the basis of preliminary dating of sediment samples collected in 2009, this sequence begins around 1100 BC, close to the end of Egyptian occupation of the area, and spans several centuries.

Additional samples have been collected in the last few days to provide more precise dating for the drying out of the channel. These will allow us to better understand the relationship between changing river environments and the archaeological record of Amara West.

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Fragments of ancient lives

Marie Vandenbeusch registering a grind-stone in the expedition house

Marie Vandenbeusch,
Université de Genève

Archaeology consists not only of walls and architectural structures, but also of objects, recovered throughout seasons of excavation. These objects are rarely masterpieces, but rather tools of all kinds: hammer- and grind-stones, small jewellery, scarabs, flint tools… and of course masses of pottery.

All these finds reflect the day-to-day lives of those living in the ancient town of Amara West.

Though fine amulets are found, the majority of the objects from the town are coarsely made and often badly damaged, with wood and leather generally only surviving in the cemetery. Materials such as papyrus have yet to be found at Amara West.

Serrated flint knife (F4568)

All the objects are brought back from site every day, and placed in a large metal trunk – our ‘inbox’. At this point my work as finds registrar starts.

Some of the artefacts need cleaning, but all have to be recorded on the project’s online database.

Set of ceramic counters (F4312)

After carefully studying the object, a description and measurements are added to the database – and occasionally a translation (or attempted reading!) of any hieroglyphs or hieratic.

These steps can be completed quickly with dozens of similar beads, or the very common discs or counters – circular objects cut from broken pottery vessels.

This work is all done in the dig house, and the objects are then transferred to the storeroom.

A computer and internet access are needed – with the short hours of electricity on the island, I need to take advantage of the battery life of several laptops, and plan my day carefully to maximise the number of finds registered.

Necklace as found in post-New Kingdom grave 216 (F9464)

Two weeks in, more than 250 objects have been registered. I am becoming very familiar with peculiar objects, rarely exhibited in museum collections. But it is these objects that provide a real insight into the activities, and occasionally beliefs, of the ancient population of the town – whether Egyptian or Nubian.

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Progress in the cemeteries

Michaela Binder, Durham University

After a somewhat disappointing first week in Cemetery C during which we only found heavily disturbed graves, our luck turned last week. We discovered two largely intact graves which provide us with important insights into the funerary customs of the people living at Amara West.

Excavations in Cemetery C

One of these intact graves is G216. As with most of the other graves excavated in Cemetery C it is of the niche grave type, in which the body of the deceased is placed in a narrow niche on the bottom of a rectangular shaft.

With a length of 2.2 metres and a width of 1.2 metres, G216 is the largest niche discovered so far. In contrast, other graves found this week are very small, with just enough space to accommodate a small child burial.

G217: Niche grave for a child burial

While some of these graves were used for only one burial, G216 was re-used no less than five times. As the niche is only large enough to hold one body, the older burials were simply thrown out of the shaft – we found the remains loosely scattered within it.

The coffin inside the burial niche of G216

Only the latest burial was discovered intact within the burial niche, placed in a wooden coffin decorated with a fine layer of white plaster, painted with parallel red and black stripes. This coffin was not exclusively used for this individual – parts of an earlier burial were found on the bottom of it.

Ivory Bes amulet (F9459)

One of the most exciting finds of this grave so far is a finely-carved ivory amulet found within the jumble of human bones on the side of the coffin. The figurine represents Bes, the Egyptian household god.

Though Bes amulets are not an unusual thing to find in graves, this is a special one. Its body features all the elements of a typical Egyptian style, but its head is carved in an entirely different, presumably local, manner, which is more reminiscent of an African mask than an Egyptian god. This little amulet therefore nicely shows how imported religious iconography was combined with local cultural elements.

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