Remains of ceremonial horse carriage unearthed in ruins outside Pompeii

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The unearthed carriage can probably be identified as a pilentum, a transport vehicle used in the Roman world by the elites in ceremonial contexts.

A grand horse-drawn ceremonial carriage, most likely used for weddings and other special occasions, has been unearthed by researchers from the ash-cover remains beyond the walls of Pompeii.

The four-wheeled carriage was found to the north of the walls around the classical Roman city, in the Campana area of Italy, which was buried by volcanic ash and pumice from Mount Vesuvius in AD79.

The find, from a suburban villa, has been described as extraordinary by researchers.

Archaeologists have been working in the area outside the ancient city walls since 2017 to combat illegal excavations.

“It represents a unique find, which has no parallel in Italy thus far,” the Archaeological Park of Pompeii said in a statement.

The unearthed carriage included its iron components, beautiful bronze and tin decorations, mineralised wood remains and imprints of organic materials (from the ropes to the remains of floral decoration).

Scientists said it was located in the portico of the villa facing the stable where, in 2018, the remains of three horses, including one still in its harness, had been found.

From the very beginning, the excavation of the room where the carriage was found revealed its exceptional nature: The area in question was a double-level portico that opened onto an uncovered courtyard, and which featured an oak ceiling with its network of beams still preserved in its entirety.

The various elements of the carriage were transported to the laboratory of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, where the restorers are working to complete the removal of volcanic material and to begin the restoration and reconstruction.
The various elements of the carriage were transported to the laboratory of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, where the restorers are working to complete the removal of volcanic material and to begin the restoration and reconstruction.

The wood used in the door to the nearby stable was identified as beech.

The interdisciplinary team that worked at the site, including archaeologists, architects, engineers, restorers and vulcanologists, said the carriage had been miraculously spared by both the collapse of the walls and ceiling of the room.

Earlier illegal tunnels dug by treasure hunters had fortunately passed either side of the collapsed building without compromising the structure.

The excavation of the carriage proved to be particularly complex due to the fragility of the materials involved and the difficult working conditions.

Specialists in the handling of wood and metals were essential to the work. Whenever a void was discovered, plaster was poured in as part of an attempt to preserve the imprint of the organic material that was no longer present.

Consequently, it has been possible to preserve the shaft and platform of the carriage, as well as the imprints of ropes, thus revealing it in all of its complexity.

The various elements of the carriage were transported to the laboratory of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, where the restorers are working to complete the removal of volcanic material which still engulfs certain metal elements, and to begin the lengthy restoration and reconstruction.

What has emerged has been systematically recorded via careful photographic documentation and through laser scanner surveying.

“Pompeii continues to amaze with all of its discoveries, and it will continue to do so for many years yet, with 20 hectares still to be excavated,” the country’s Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini, said of the discovery.

He said it was a find of great scientific value which had averted the theft and illegal sale of the treasures on the black market.

The upper section of the bronze sheet is decorated with small tin medallions, which depict cupids engaged in various activities.
The upper section of the bronze sheet is decorated with small tin medallions, which depict cupids engaged in various activities.

The outgoing director of the archaeological park, Massimo Osanna, said it was an extraordinary find that would advance knowledge of the ancient world.

At Pompeii, vehicles used for transport had been found in the past, but nothing of such stature.

It was, he said, most likely a ceremonial carriage, probably the pilentum referred to by some sources, which was employed not for everyday use or for agricultural transport, but to accompany community festivities, parades and processions. A pilentum is a transport vehicle used in the Roman world by the elites in ceremonial contexts.

This type of carriage, never before found in Italy, bears comparison with finds uncovered around 15 years ago inside a burial mound in Thrace, in northern Greece, near the Bulgarian border.

One of the Thracian carriages was particularly similar to the one Pompeii, although it lacked the impressive figurative decorations.

The scenes on the medallions which embellish the rear of the carriage refer to Eros (Satyrs and nymphs), while the numerous studs feature erotes — winged gods associated with love and sexual intercourse in Greek mythology.

These probably allude to its use by priestesses and ladies. It is possible it was used for rituals relating to marriage, for leading the bride to her new household.

The carriage sat atop high iron wheels, connected by an advanced mechanical system.

The main part of the carriage, measuring 90cm by 1.4m, where the seat was located, was surrounded by a metal arm and backrests, for either one or two individuals.

The carriage was richly decorated along both sides with alternating engraved bronze sheet and red and black painted wooden panels, whilst at the rear there is a complex and extensive decorative system featuring three distinct registers with a succession of bronze and tin medallions with figurative scenes.

In the lower section of the carriage there is a small female herm in bronze with a crown.
In the lower section of the carriage there is a small female herm in bronze with a crown.

These medallions, set in bronze sheet and surrounded by decorative motifs, represent male and female figures in relief, depicted in erotic scenes.

The bronze sheet is also decorated in its upper section with small medallions, also in tin, which depict cupids engaged in various activities. In the lower section of the carriage there is a small female herm in bronze with a crown.

The wood used to create the side structures and rear of the carriage, to which the bronze decorative elements were fixed with small nails and clamps, was beech.

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