Archaeologists Discover Brutal ‘Bakery-Prison’ at Pompeii

Enslaved workers toiled for hours in a dark, cramped space to grind grain for bread

Bakery Prison
At this ancient bakery, enslaved individuals and donkeys worked under bleak conditions to grind grain. Pompeii Archaeological Park

Researchers at Pompeii have discovered an ancient bakery where enslaved people labored under cruel conditions.

These workers toiled for long hours at the site—which doubled as a prison—alongside donkeys to grind grain for bread. The cramped space provided minimal light, as windows to the outside were small, high and barred.

“It is, in other words, a space in which we have to imagine the presence of people of servile status whose freedom of movement the owner felt the need to restrict,” says Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, in a statement.

He adds: “It is the most shocking side of ancient slavery, the one devoid of both trusting relationships and promises of manumission, where we were reduced to brute violence, an impression that is entirely confirmed by the securing of the few windows with iron bars.”

The donkeys pushed a grindstone, while the workers added grain, monitored the process and collected flour. Researchers found indentations in the floor, which they think were used to coordinate the workers’ and animals’ movements.

Aerial View of the Bakery
An aerial view of the "bakery-prison" at Pompeii Pompeii Archaeological Park

“The space was so small that two donkeys could not pass at the same time, so they always had to be careful to keep in some kind of synchrony with the others,” Zuchtriegel tells the New York Times’ Elisabetta Povoledo. He adds that the indentations on the ground “evidently helped” with this process.

In the past, history has relied on written accounts of the bleak conditions inside ancient mills and bakeries. The second-century author Apuleius used his knowledge of such environments in his writings, which describe workers with “skins striped with livid welts,” “foreheads branded” and “feet chained together.”

“They were wretchedly sallow too, their eyes so bleary from the scorching heat of that smoke-filled darkness, they could barely see,” writes Apuleius. “Like wrestlers sprinkled with dust before a fight, they were coarsely whitened with floury ash.”

Conditions were also grueling for the donkeys, who were blindfolded and forced to walk around in circles for hours. “Their flanks were cut to the bone from relentless whipping,” writes Apuleius, “their hooves distorted to strange dimensions from the repetitive circling, and their whole hide blotched by mange and hollowed by starvation.”

The bakery was found in the Regio IX area of Pompeii, which archaeologists began excavating earlier this year. Previous discoveries in this section include a fresco featuring a flatbread and an electoral campaign inscription.

Now, this latest find is “testimony of the backbreaking work to which men, women and animals were subjected in the ancient mill-bakeries,” says Zuchtriegel in a video posted on the archaeological park’s YouTube channel, per a translation by CNN’s Barbie Latza Nadeau.

The discovery aligns with an upcoming exhibition at the site—“The Other Pompeii: Ordinary Lives in the Shadow of Vesuvius”—which opens on December 15. The show is dedicated to those often left out of the history books, such as enslaved individuals, who “constituted the majority of the population and whose labor contributed in an important way not only to the economy, but also to the culture and social fabric of Roman civilization,” writes the archaeological park.

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