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July 2001-August 2003InteractiveDig Pompeii
The House of the Vestals

Students excavating near the House of the Vestals

Photos courtesy of the AAPP.

What We Are Doing

Our city block was one of the earliest areas of Pompeii uncovered in the late eighteenth century, but in the recent past its significance has been overlooked and the block was generally neglected. It contained the House of the Vestals, one of the largest and most luxurious properties in the ancient city, and the House of the Surgeon, normally regarded as one of the oldest buildings still standing when Vesuvius exploded. To either side of these houses were commercial and industrial properties including bars, workshops, and an inn. In 1994, the AAPP began to record all the standing remains that had withstood the effects of weathering since the eighteenth century and to excavate below the A.D. 79 levels. We have been extremely successful in finding early deposits and tracing the history of the block back to the fourth century B.C. In addition our program of complete artifactual and environmental recovery has produced a massive amount of data to support our interpretations.

We have been able to not only identify what appears to be the original surface of open ground before any structures had been built in this part of the city, but construction activity spanning over 400 years. Earthen walls were eventually rebuilt in masonry and small properties were combined to create large, sprawling houses. The triangular space of the block filled up quickly with domestic, industrial, and commercial buildings. It was an important area since it was located right inside the Herculaneum Gate, probably the primary land entrance to Pompeii. The changing nature of the properties, from small, modest houses to large, luxurious ones and industrial complexes to commercial establishments, reflect the growing gulf between rich and poor in ancient Pompeii. In the past, archaeological evidence has generally not been sought to support theories of Pompeian social history.

Most archaeological work deals with the changing fabric of people's lives, but occasionally we find evidence of a particular historical event. As well as the obvious example of Vesuvius' eruption in A.D. 79, we found evidence last summer of a time when Pompeii was bombarded by an attacking army. We uncovered 11 stone artillery balls and more than 30 lead sling bullets, artifacts whose context was confidently dated to deposits of the first century B.C. Appian records that the famous Roman general Sulla besieged Pompeii in 89 B.C. These artifacts were associated with damage to the city wall and northern areas of our block, most likely from that attack.

The 2001 season marked the beginning of a new phase of our investigations. The exploration of the House of the Vestals had enriched our understanding of the structural sequence of the block. We then turned our attention to the commercial and industrial properties to the north and south. These buildings offered new challenges in interpretation, which made the 2001 season a particularly exciting prospect. In particular we were eager to explore the increasing social segregation of space during the development of Pompeii. Our field research has shown a changing pattern of occupation and activity over more than four centuries in our city block. In the House of the Vestals we studied the elite members in society and their houses decorated with elaborate wall paintings and mosaics. In 2001, we looked at the far more modest homes and workplaces of the ordinary citizens of Pompeii.

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© 2004 Archaeological Institute of America

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