In the year 79 CE, volcanic ash and lava from Mount Vesuvius rained down over the Ancient Roman town of Pompeii in Italy. Today, the site is known for its unique (though traffic) preservation of a moment in ancient everyday life. Due to the coating of volcanic material, many organic materials have survived through the imprints they left behind. These include loaves of bread, animals, and even ancient humans attempting to flee the town. Now, it’s a government-protected area known as the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, and there are still large swaths of town to be excavated.
In January 2021, a team of archeologists discovered and began excavating an intact, beautifully preserved ceremonial chariot at a villa just outside the town. This vehicle is the first of its kind to be recovered in Italy. The chariot was discovered on January 7, 2021, when an interdisciplinary team of archeologists and other specialists noticed an iron object protruding from hardened volcanic material which had filled an ancient portico almost 2,000 years ago.
The team has recently discovered the remains of horses nearby—even making a plaster cast of the impression left by one equine. As careful excavations began, it became increasingly clear that the team had discovered a large four-wheeled chariot. On the day of the volcanic eruption, the chariot appears to have been parked in the portico near a courtyard and an adjoining stable. The team was able to examine the piece in situ—even taking casts of the impressions left by the organic materials of the chariot's rope and wooden components. Traces of these organic materials can be identified by archaeobotanical analyses.
During the early excavation phases, the team also realized that the chariot had been recently lucky in its survival. Flanking either side and nearly touching the artifact were tunnels crafted by an organized group of looters looking for ancient artifacts to sell on the black market. The dig on which the chariot was discovered was initiated largely in reaction to the looting, in an effort to both preserve artifacts and publicize the importance of protecting ancient sites. According to a statement from the park, several of the alleged looters are currently awaiting trial. The statement also notes that the devoted team of archeologists and restorers worked tirelessly (and on weekends) to ensure the chariot's safety.
As more of the chariot emerged during micro-excavation (the slow and careful excavation in a lab setting), the chariot's decoration emerged. Featuring four large wheels, a seat for one or maybe two riders, and a wooden shaft, the chariot was clearly not for agricultural transportation of goods to market. Bronze and tin medallions—beautifully crafted with erotic scenes—decorated the sides. These decorations—along with wooden panels—suggest the chariot is a Pilentum, a vehicle used for ceremonies.
Pilentum are mentioned in ancient textual sources; however, they were previously unknown in the Italian archeological record. According to Massimo Osanna, the outgoing director of the Archaeological Park, “It is an extraordinary discovery for the advancement of our knowledge of the ancient world. At Pompeii, vehicles used for transport have been found in the past, such as that of the House of Menander, or the two chariots discovered at Villa Arianna (one of which can be admired at the new Stabian Antiquarium), but nothing like [this] Civita Giuliana chariot.”
Osanna elaborated, “The scenes on the medallions which embellish the rear of the chariot refer to Eros (Satyrs and nymphs), while the numerous studs feature erotes. Considering that the ancient sources allude to the use of the Piletum by priestesses and ladies, one cannot exclude the possibility that this could have been a chariot used for rituals relating to marriage, for leading the bride to her new household.” This exciting archeological find suggest that the knowledge of Ancient Roman life to be gained from Pompeii is extremely vast. Hence, the importance of preserving the site from looters is thrown into sharp relief by just how much can be learned about world history from one intact object.