In a villa just outside of Pompeii, archaeologists have found a tiny room with sparse furnishings: three beds, a chamber pot and a wooden chest. No artwork adorns the walls, and the only natural light comes from a tiny opening in the ceiling—facts that led researchers to suspect they’d uncovered the living quarters of people enslaved in the ancient Roman city, reports Angela Giuffrida for the Guardian.
Measuring just 170 square feet, the remarkably well-preserved room was buried in ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. Archaeologists discovered the structure in the suburban villa of Civita Giuliana, located about half a mile outside the city walls of Pompeii.
“This is a window into the precarious reality of people who seldom appear in historical sources that were written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite, and who as a result risk remaining invisible in the great historical accounts,” says Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director-general of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, in a statement, per a translation by NPR’s Kat Lonsdorf.
Excavations at Civita Giuliana have been ongoing since 2017. Previous finds made at the villa include the remains of two Vesuvius victims—a wealthy man aged 30 to 40 and a younger enslaved man—and a horse, still saddled and ready to flee. Earlier this year, researchers uncovered a nearly intact Roman chariot.
When experts opened the wooden crate in the newly discovered living quarters, they found “metal and fabric objects” that appear to be part of a harness, prompting speculation that the enslaved people who resided in the room were responsible for maintaining the ceremonial chariot, according to the statement.
To envision how the room once looked, the team made plaster casts of the beds and other fragile objects, which left imprints in the volcanic rock that blanketed the space as they decayed. When plaster is poured into such cavities, scholars are able to create precise casts of how items looked at the time of the eruption.
Two of the room’s wooden beds measured about 5 and a half feet in length. The third was about 4 and a half feet long, reports Deutsche Welle (DW). Given the presence of the smaller cot, which may have been used by a child, the researchers posit that the space was a dormitory inhabited by a family of enslaved people. As Amah-Rose Abrams writes for Artnet News, the beds consisted of wooden planks perched on bases of webbed ropes. Fabric covers were laid atop the beds.
In addition to the chest and chamber pot, the team found a chariot shaft and amphorae (clay vessels with pointed bottoms), including a collection of eight jugs crammed into a corner. The room’s enslaved inhabitants may have kept their belongings in two amphorae stashed under the beds.
“What is most striking is the cramped and precarious nature of this room, which is something between a dormitory and a storage room,” says Zuchtriegel in the statement, per a translation by the Guardian.
Last November, archaeologists discovered the remains of two men in the villa. Researchers believe the pair survived the first eruption of Vesuvius but died during a subsequent blast the next day, as Giuffrida reported for the Guardian at the time. The older man wore a high-quality woolen cloak, while the younger man, who died between the ages of 18 and 25, had several compressed vertebrae, suggesting he was a manual laborer likely enslaved by his companion.
Researchers are continuing to study the room and its artifacts in hopes of learning more about enslaved people in ancient Rome. Little is known about these individuals and how they lived, but as the British Museum points out, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the Roman Empire’s population was enslaved in the first century C.E.
“[This] is certainly one of the most exciting discoveries during my life as an archaeologist, even without the presence of great ‘treasures,” says Zuchtriegel in the statement, per NPR. “The true treasure here is the human experience, in this case of the most vulnerable members of ancient society, to which this room is a unique testimony.”