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Massimo Osanna at the shrine in Pompeii.

An Elegant Shrine Rises From The Volcanic Ash Of Pompeii


An ancient shrine swallowed by the ashes of Mount Vesuvius almost 2,000 years ago has been uncovered in the ancient city of Pompeii.

The sacred altar space was discovered in a near perfect state of preservation as it had been covered in volcanic ash from the AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, an explosion of such horrific magnitude that it killed an estimated 16,000 people, instantly. Massimo Osanna, the archaeologist in charge of the Pompeii archaeological site told reporters at the New York Times that the shrine is “very well preserved… A marvelous and enigmatic room that now must be studied at length.”

“The shrine’s walls were painted in a deep blood-red color,” said Osanna, and brought to life with the wonderfully flowing Roman illusionistic style depicting enchanted garden scenes of bright green leafy trees, coiled and twisting serpents, peacocks, birds and bulls. On one wall of the shrine a man is depicted “with a dog’s head” which experts believe is “a Romanized version of the Egyptian god Anubis,” according to the New York Times report. And the shrine was also decorated “with paintings of eggs” which is an ancient Roman symbol of fertility .”

The shrine in Pompeii was decorated with classic Roman imagery. (Pompeii Parco Archeologico)

The shrine in Pompeii was decorated with classic Roman imagery. ( Pompeii Parco Archeologico )

Known as a lararium, the ancient shrine was found “embedded in the wall of a house and is flanked by images of Roman gods central to household rituals” according to Osanna. The shrine has not yet been completely excavated, and neither has the surround “garden and a small pool.” Shrines were standard architectural features in Roman households and Ingrid Rowland, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, told reporters at the Daily Mail that “Every house had a lararium of some kind.” But Rowland added, “only the wealthiest people could have afforded a lararium inside a special chamber with a raised pool and sumptuous decorations.”

And if this magnificent hall of ancient art was not enough, further discoveries were made when archaeologists excavated beneath the garden shrine.

The decorations included serpents and eggs, a symbol for fertility. (Pompeii Parco Archeologico)

The decorations included serpents and eggs, a symbol for fertility. (Pompeii Parco Archeologico )

What Lies Beneath?

Beneath the garden shrine an altar was discovered and when it was inspected closely archaeologists gathered samples of organic matter which when tested were found to be ‘burnt offerings’ made almost 2,000 years ago. The charred remains of figs, nuts and eggs peppered over the altar are thought to be “food offerings to fertility deities,” like the paintings of eggs found in the garden, Mr Osanna said. Mary Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge University, said in an email to the New York Times that about “one third of Pompeii is unexcavated,” and she believes “it will stay that way,” for the meantime.

Beard argued that this part of the site was “safest under the ground, and one day there will be even better techniques for understanding it than we have.” Beard is expressing the feelings of many archaeologists around the world who believe that such discoveries of sites in such remarkably high states of preservation , would sometimes be best left alone, in the understanding that future scientists will derive much more data with their yet to be invented technologies.

Fresco of a boar and large cat on a blood-red background. (Pompeii Parco Archeologico)

Fresco of a boar and large cat on a blood-red background. (Pompeii Parco Archeologico )

However, such a line is very difficult to maintain when such incredibly informative paintings are found, and the argument is that the site might be accidentally destroyed or degraded by unpredictable environmental causes, before future archaeologists excavate the site. This in mind, Beard concluded that, “it is very exciting just to have a few new discoveries.”

Archaeologists believe that every single Pompeii resident instantly died when the town was hit by a 500°C pyroclastic hot surge. With many corpses preserved in hunched positions exactly as they died , only last week a new paper was published proving that many of the people’s “brains boiled and heads exploded,” when the volcano erupted in AD79, a fascinating story of scientific investigation and detection  which I wrote about in this recent Ancient Origins article .

Top image: Massimo Osanna at the shrine in Pompeii. Source: Parco Archeologico di Pompeii

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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