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Pre-Roman tomb in Pompeii

Extremely rare discovery of Pre-Roman tomb in Pompeii will shed light on its early history

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Archaeologists have unearthed an extremely rare 4 th century BC tomb of a woman dating to before the Roman presence in Pompeii, when the Samnites occupied the area. Evidence suggests the Romans knew of the burial site and chose not to build on it, allowing the site to survive undisturbed for more than two millennia. Scholars hope the find will give important insight into the Samnite people, an Italic people who once fought against the Romans.

Inside the tomb, archaeologists found amphorae or earthenware jugs, still with substances in them. The clay jars were found to come from various parts of Italy, showing that the Samnite people had contact outside their own area on the western coast of Italy. Researchers will examine the contents of the jars, but an initial examinations revealed food, wine and cosmetics, providing a fascinating insight into Samnite diet and culture.

A French archaeological team based in Naples discovered the tomb by surprise.

“The burial objects will show us much about the role of women in Samnite society and can provide us with a useful social insight,” Massimo Osanna, the archaeological superintendent of Pompeii said, according to

After the Samnite Wars in the 4 th century BC, the town became subject to Rome while still retaining administrative and linguistic autonomy. Osanna said little is known about Pompeii before Rome annexed it.

The Samnite inhabitants of early Pompeii took part in the wars against Rome along with other towns of the Campania region in 89 BC. Rome laid siege to the town but did not subdue it until 80 BC.

Only a century later, in 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted and the town and many of its residents were overcome by a cloud of super-hot gas and buried in ash that froze them in time. The preserved city is now a major tourist attraction and has been undergoing renovations and restoration in the face of degradation from thieves, time and the elements.

The well-preserved city of Pompeii as it is today

The well-preserved city of Pompeii as it is today. (BigStockPhotos)

Before the Samnites took over the town, it was built by the Oscan people in the 6 th or 7 th century BC. Before that, scholars think, Greeks and Etruscans had used it as a safe harbor. The city was much sought after as Pompeii was at an important crossroads. The Samnites conquered the Osci in the 5 th century BC.

Archaeologists will excavate the area around the tomb to see if there are other tombs nearby. Where there is one tomb, there usually are more. That said, the area where the tomb was found was shelled in World War II, so it is questionable whether other tombs have survived.

Although Pompeii was initially rediscovered at the end of the 16th century, it was only properly excavated in the 18th century. Excavators were startled by the sexually explicit frescoes they were unearthing, quite shocking to the sensibilities of the people of the time, so they quickly covered them over. They remained buried for another two centuries before society was ready to face the raunchy paintings of Pompeii.

The raunchy frescoes of Pompeii are the reason the city lay buried for two centuries after its initial discovery.

The raunchy frescoes of Pompeii are the reason the city lay buried for two centuries after its initial discovery. (BigStockPhoto)

When excavations resumed in the 18 th century, archaeologists found the city almost entirely intact – loaves of bread still sat in the oven, bodies of men, women, children and pets were found frozen in their last moments, the expressions of fear still etched on their faces, and the remains of meals discarded on the pavement. The discovery meant that researchers could piece together exactly what life was like for the ancient Romans of Pompeii – the food they ate, the jobs they performed and the houses they lived in.

Fresco in a Roman villa from Pompeii

Fresco in a Roman villa from Pompeii (Photo by Canadacow/Wikimedia Commons)

A team of scientists, including archaeologists, engineers, an anthropologist, restoration experts and radiologists, have been undertaking the Great Pompeii Project to do anthropological and genetic profiling of the unfortunate victims of the eruption. The scientists hope to get a better understanding of their way of life and identify them more fully. They will publish their findings and be featured in a documentary by a restoration company from Salerno.

Scholars think Pompeii, which was a Roman resort town, had a population of about 20,000 before the eruption. Most fled, apparently when Vesuvius began to rumble, but about 2,000 people stayed and were killed.

Featured image: The grave of a Samnite woman has been unearthed in Pompeii; the Samnites lived in Pompeii before it became subject to Rome. The Samnites took Pompeii over from the Osci. (Pompeii archaeological superintendent’s office photo)

By Mark Miller

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Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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