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Rare finds beneath the ash

Quick Notes

  • Historians and archeologists discover ritualistic gems from Pompeii.

  • The gems reveal interesting clues about the rituals performed in the ancient Roman city.

Imagine what you would do if you uncovered a hidden part of history. You discovered a rare gem and it’s your job to share it with the world. That’s what happened to a group of historians and archeologists, who discovered rare mystical gems and figurines left behind during the eruption and destruction of Pompeii in 79 A.D. The gems reveal startling new information about the inhabitants of this prehistoric era, but what exactly?

About the Pompeii destruction

Mount Vesuvius, a volcano near the Bay of Naples in Italy, is one of the most famous volcanoes in history, mostly because of its memorable eruption in the year 79 A.D. The volcano erupted and buried the ancient city of Pompeii. The city was blanketed by a thick carpet of ash, pouring across the land like a flood. The city was shrouded in darkness, and there was nowhere for innocent residents to run to for shelter.

Some people tried to flee from the explosion, but they were ultimately caught in the fast-moving surges of toxic gases, ash, and rock. Pompeiians rushed to their homes to formulate a disaster plan. But the surges continued, rushing down the mountainside and into homes. People were trapped in their homes, only to be buried alive.

“You can imagine sitting inside your house and realizing this 10-, 15-foot pile (is building) in your living room,” said Eric Poehler, Pompeii historian and archeologist at the University of Massachusetts.

Overall, two thousand people died, and the city remained abandoned for years. It wasn’t until 1748 when a group of explorers rediscovered the lost site. They were surprised to find – underneath a layer of dust and debris – that the city of Pompeii was still intact. Buildings, skeletons (unfortunately), and artifacts remained in the city. Historians and archaeologists now use these materials to answer important questions about Pompeiians.

A remarkable discovery

When the city of Pompeii was first rediscovered in 1748, explorers uncovered a wooden box. Inside contained an array of dazzling cut gems and figurines. “It’s really a remarkable discovery,” commented Drew Wilburn, a specialist in the ancient Roman practice of magic. “Finding magic and evidence of the practice of rituals like this, it’s pretty uncommon.”

The mystical gems range in various sizes and served specific ritual purposes for the ancient city of Pompeii. Some gems were seashells, which, according to Wilburn, symbolize fertility. Small phallic charms were worn by men to ward off evil spirits. Other gems were engraved with drawings of the god Dionysus and a satyr (a male nature spirit with ears and a tail resembling those of a horse).

In addition, there was a figurine of Harpocrates, the Hellenized name for Egyptian god Horus in a child form. He was a god of secrets and embodiment of hope—something the Pompeiians needed during the Mount Vesuvius eruption centuries ago. The plentiful number of Egyptian gems is impressive, according to Wilburn, and so many of them are associated with health, children, and fertility. Clearly, these were important values for the Pompeiians.

“It’s a fascinating cache in terms of showing us what these individuals were doing at this time, but also the range of objects were used in these rituals,” Wilburn said. This is important because no one can time travel back to the ancient city of Pompeii. We can’t observe Pompeiians and talk to them one-on-one. Instead, we must rely on valuable artifacts preserved from the time period.

Learning more about Pompeii

The more you learn about a lost city, the more you learn about the residents who once lived there. Pompeiians referred to the historic Roman city as “home.” They, unfortunately, had to leave it behind (not by their choice), but historians are now thankful they left timeless artifacts they can study today.

“These are a collection of items that people are accessing powers outside the standard set of powers,” Poehler remarked. No one will be able to replace these valuable items. They’re forever a part of Pompeii, bridging a gap between the past and the present.

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