Crystals, amber, amethyst, phallic amulets, glass beads, figurines, and a miniature human skull were among the many artifacts archaeologists uncovered from an excavation site at Pompeii recently. The objects were probably left behind by someone fleeing the famous volcanic eruption in 79 AD—possibly even a sorceress. The various objects will be displayed at the Palastra Grande in Pompeii later this year.
“They are objects of everyday life in the female world and are extraordinary because they tell micro-stories and biographies of the inhabitants of the city who tried to escape the eruption,” Massimo Osanna, general director of the Archaaological Park of Pompeii, said in a statement.
The catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD wiped out several nearby towns and killed thousands of people. The eruption released 100,000 times the thermal energy of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, ejecting many tons of molten rock, pumice, and hot ash over the course of two days. In the first phase, immediately after the eruption, a long column of ash and pumice blanketed the surrounding towns, most notably Pompeii and Herculaneum. By late night or early morning, pyroclastic flows (fast-moving hot ash, lava fragments, and gases) swept through and obliterated what remained, leaving the bodies of the victims frozen in seeming suspended action.
The only surviving eyewitness account is that of Pliny the Younger, who wrote two letters to his friend, the historian Tacitus, describing the cataclysmic event. He described “broad sheets of flame” visible from Vesuvius and a rain of ash blanketing the area like snow. He and his uncle, Pliny the Elder, also witnessed a dense cloud “filled with earth and cinders” rising above the mountain like a pine tree, “for it shot up to a great height in the form of a tall trunk, which spread out at the top as though into branches.”
The vast majority of people in Pompeii and Herculaneum—the cities hardest hit—perished from asphyxiation, choking on the thick clouds of noxious gas and ash. But at least some of the Vesuvian victims probably died instantaneously from the intense heat of fast-moving lava flows, with temperatures high enough to boil brains and explode skulls.
The archaeologists were diligently excavating Casa del Giardino in the park when they found a decaying wooden box with brass hinges. Many of the artifacts are adorned with iconography associated with fertility, fortune, and protection against bad luck, according to Osanna, such as Egyptian scarab beetles (used to protect pregnant women and babies), phallus-shaped pendants, and bird bones used to ward off the “evil eye.”
They also found ten victims in a separate room of Casa del Giardino—most likely the servants’ quarters—all victims of the eruption. The wooden box may have belonged to one of them. Since none of the recovered items were made of gold (an indication of wealth and elite status), it’s more likely the owner was a servant or slave.
“There are dozens of good luck charms next to other objects that were attributed with the power of crushing bad luck,” said Osanna. “They could have been necklaces that were worn during rituals rather being used to look elegant.”