(Archaeological Park of Pompeii)
(Archaeological Park of Pompeii)
(Archaeological Park of Pompeii)

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A Sorceress’s Kit Was Discovered in the Ashes of Pompeii

The box of small trinkets was likely used to perform fertility and love rituals and to look for omens about birth and pregnancy

smithsonian.com

In the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, archaeologists digging in the Garden House recently uncovered the hinges of a wooden box, long since rotted away. But the contents of the box were still there, preserved in the ash that showered Pompeii in 79 A.D. after nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted, creating an unprecedented time capsule of life 2,000 years ago.

The treasure trove emerged from Regio V, an area of the city that has been under recent excavation. In total, archaeologists found around 100 little objects, including buttons made of bone, carved scarab beetles, miniature penises, crystals, tiny skulls and little dolls. It’s believed the objects may be part of a sorceress’s tool kit, used for fortune telling and to bring good luck, a press release from the Archaeological Park of Pompeii details.

Restorationists have cleaned up the objects and now historians and archaeologists are examining them to understand their meaning and significance.

“They are objects of everyday life in the female world and are extraordinary because they tell micro-stories, biographies of the inhabitants of the city who tried to escape the eruption,” says Massimo Osanna, director general of the archaeology park. Since there were no gold or precious objects in the trove, which wealthy citizens of Pompeii liked to flaunt, the cache of charms was likely not owned by the mistress of the house or a member of the family. Instead, Osanna tells Italian news agency ANSA that the owner of the sorceress’s kit was likely owned by a slave or servant. The objects could have been part of ritualistic jewelry used in ceremonies for things fertility, seduction, or to look for omens about a birth or pregnancy. One hypothesis? “They could have been necklaces that were worn during rituals rather being used to look elegant,” he says.

Whoever owned the box may still be in the house; archeologists have found the remains of several people in the luxury villa. “[W]e discovered a room with ten victims, including women and children, and now we are trying to establish kinship relationships, thanks to DNA analysis. Perhaps the precious box belonged to one of these victims,” Osanna suggests.

The objects will soon be displayed at the Palestra Grande at the archaeological site.

This is not the only significant find to come out of the Garden House. An inscription discovered in the structure last year suggests the eruption in 79 A.D. took place in October rather than August, as previously long thought. Other recent finds include a horse that died while saddled up and ready to flee the doomed city, as well as a well-preserved erotic fresco depicting the myth of Leda and the Swan.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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