Enslaved Individuals Slept in This Bedroom, Untouched Since Mount Vesuvius’ Eruption 2,000 Years Ago

The small room with two beds—but only one mattress—sheds new light on slavery in a Roman villa near Pompeii

Artifacts excavated at the site
Archaeologists unearthed the bedroom in a Roman villa near Pompeii. Archaeological Park of Pompeii

Archaeologists have unearthed an ancient bedroom at Civita Giuliana, a villa north of Pompeii, where enslaved individuals likely once slept.

The details of the discovery were published in a new report by Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, and Chiara A. Corbino, an archaeologist at England’s University of Sheffield.

“We get a glimpse of virtually photographic quality into the lives of a group of people who hardly appear in the written sources, and if they do so it is almost exclusively from an elite perspective,” they write.

Inside the room, researchers found two beds, alongside cupboards, tools and ceramics, according to a statement from the archaeological park.

The room is slightly different from a similar chamber uncovered at the villa in 2021. That room, which housed enslaved individuals and functioned as a storage area, contained three beds, none of which had mattresses. In the newly discovered room, the first bed is constructed in a similar fashion—but the second bed is of higher quality and does have a mattress, making it both more comfortable and more expensive than the other four.

Due to these differences, researchers think that a “definite hierarchy” of enslaved individuals existed in the community, per the statement.

“Such slaves often would be granted privileges in order to make them reliable allies of the master,” says the report. The researchers found no shackles, locks or iron grills inside the room (or blocking the doors and windows).

“We know that the owners used various privileges, including the possibility of forming a family, albeit without any legal protection, to bind some slaves more closely to the villa, also with the purpose of having them as allies in guarding the others,” says Zuchtriegel in the statement. “What emerges here is the social structure of servitude that was meant to prevent escapes and forms of resistance.”

The report also details the discovery of several rodent remains in the first bedroom, shedding new light on the lack of hygiene in such quarters. (One rat, found inside a clay jug, was likely “trying to get out during the eruption,” per the report.) “When looking at the rodent-infested rooms at Civita Giuliana,” write the researchers, “we are invited to appreciate how in spite of everything, the people living here struggled to maintain a minimum of dignity and comfort.”

Excavations at Civita Giuliana have been underway since 2017. Like most of the areas around Pompeii, these rooms were covered by volcanic debris during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. When the materials inside eventually decomposed, they left voids in the debris, which remained. Thousands of years later, archaeologists fill these now vacant shapes with plaster to recreate furniture and objects.

“What do these extraordinarily preserved rooms tell us about slave quarters that the available written and archaeological evidence … has not yet revealed?” write the researchers. “We will be able to fully answer this question only after the completion of the excavation.”

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