Written by Peter Reynaers | 2nd April 2019
Since its discovery nearly 250 years ago, the ancient city of Pompeii has been one of the most visited sites in all of Italy. Unfortunately, back in the 18th century, there were few laws in place to protect such a unique find. For centuries Pompeii became a treasure trove for amateur and professional archeologists, eager to own a piece of Roman history. The result of this free-for-all was that many pieces from Pompeii found their way into private collections.
Present day interest in Pompeii continues to grow; 2.5 million people visit the site every year and only a fraction of the city has been excavated, a situation that fuels a constant stream of new books and discoveries. Peter Reynaers, our Archaeological Finds & Remains expert, has a few tips for the ethical acquisition of Ancient Rome-related items. But first, a little history...
Life beneath the fire mountain
Mount Vesuvius is a relatively young volcano, originating most probably less than 200,000 years ago. It overlooks the Bay of Naples and in 79 CE a great eruption occurred after the volcano had lain dormant for centuries. The city of Pompeii was buried under ashes and lapilli (volcanic hailstones) and the city of Herculaneum fell victim to a gigantic mudflow. Herculaneum was the sister city of Pompeii and is the most well known, but the towns of Oplontis, Stabiae and Boscoreale were also affected.
Marble Head of a Satyr 1st-2nd Century AD
Pliny the Younger witnessed it all and wrote two letters to Tacitus, the historian, describing the catastrophe. Even in the present day, this description of the drama is still an important document for volcanologists’ study. The volcano was very active between 1000 and 200 BCE. In the year 512 CE, for example, the explosions were so severe that Theodoric the Goth, King of Italy, exempted those persons living on the slopes of Vesuvius from paying taxes to help them recover and rebuild their lives.
A scientific treasure trove
The scientific study of this mountain began only after the late 18th century. In the 20th century many stations were established to measure volcanic activity and a long tunnel was built, containing seismo-gravimetric measuring devices to try to predict any new activity. This volcano frozen-in-time from the Ancient Roman world is here today for us to study. It also has famously fertile soil and remains a playground for anyone interested in the geographic history of the earth.
One of the special treats any volcano gives us is Obsidian, a volcanic glassy material that is created when lava is suddenly cooled to extremely low temperatures. The result is a hard, black and sometimes even half transparent kind of stone, known also as volcanic glass.
Glass Ungentuarium (perfumed oil bottle) with Silver Iridescence C. 2nd century CE
Two things come out in great masses at times when a volcano erupts: white pumice and obsidian. The first when the lava grows and becomes white and the second one becomes black and vitrifies.
Another material, deadly in most cases but very useful in daily life, is one of the building stones of all life on earth: sulphur. An unpleasant smelling, soft chemical element that is found in every living cell on earth. It comes out of volcanoes in huge quantities. Mined since the earliest times, it gave prehistoric peoples one of the first pigments to be used in cave painting. The name got into the ancient Latin language from just that place, Vesuvius, from the first inhabitants of the slopes of the mountains, the Oscans.
Back to the artwork of Pompeii
In the excavations at Pompeii a number of wall paintings represent the volcano as it was prior to the eruption of 79 CE, showing just the one summit. After the eruption it would have two. Our imagination gets the better of us when we look at a map of the excavated city: the house of Menander, the house of the dancing Faun, the house of the Vettii, the house of Marcus Lucretius Fronto. All names we gave to the places where we know exactly who really lived there.
The walls were adorned with superb paintings; in the buildings the tables were laden with terra sigillata (terracotta) saucers, and bronze pots and pans were left with the food in the kitchens. Jewellery was found everywhere on the people that perished from the heat of the mountain. Some even holding it in their hands.
Gold Ring with Intaglio showing a Stag ca. 100 CE
Of course there are voids in the lava that, once filled with modern plaster, give us the phantoms of those who were killed. Hundreds of portraits of ancestors were found, kept in shrines, and temples with statuary. Even the Lararia were found - domestic shrines where small bronze statuettes of the Roman Gods were kept, revered by the pious Romans living in those villae.
"To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour."
As Blake suggests, if you hold even a small piece of Ancient Art in your hand, you do not hold “an object” but a view of an entire civilisation before your own eyes - alive in your imagination - you feel the urge to learn and read more about them - understanding who the people were and what concerned them in their everyday lives.
We want you to be able to own a piece of wall from a Roman villa, originating from one of these ancient collections; or a piece of jewellery worn by an ancient Roman Matrona or even some tableware from the times. Another object to add to your collection is a glass flagon, called an “unguentarium”, where the women of the time kept their perfumed oils. Oils that came from places as far away as Egypt, imported at great cost into the Roman cities.
Mosaic and Fresco fragments, Roman, ca 2nd - 4th century CE
Not only do we want you to be able to build your collection without worrying about how an item came into the public realm, we do everything we can to make it possible. Every seller of ancient artifacts on Catawiki is required to provide a statement of verification, including details of the provenance of the item, and how they came to acquire it. For more information please consult our seller guidelines.
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