Excavations at a villa near Pompeii have uncovered a ceremonial chariot preserved by volcanic material from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.
The chariot was found at a large villa in Civita Giuliana, a suburb near Pompeii, which has been the subject of excavations since 2017, and has produced several significant discoveries, including the remains of three horses (CWA 90) and two people believed to have died during the eruption of Vesuvius (CWA 105). The chariot was found in a two-storey portico that opened onto a courtyard, just in front of the stable where the horses were found in 2018.
The chariot was sealed under a layer of cinerite – formed by volcanic ash from the eruption – and was revealed once the wooden floor belonging to the level above had been removed. Careful excavation by restorers specialising in metal and wood allowed much of the vehicle to be extracted, while the remaining details were revealed by pouring plaster into voids in the volcanic material to preserve the impressions of features made out of organic material, such as ropes and the chariot seat.
Although fragile, the majority of the chariot survives, including the wood and iron elements that make up much of the chariot’s structure, and the bronze and tin used to decorate it. The main part of the chariot, which measures 0.9m by 1.4m, sits high on top of four wheels, and would have contained seats for one or two people, with metal armrests and backrests. It is elaborately decorated on the sides and back, and is believed to be a type of ceremonial chariot that is known as a pilentum.
This is a unique find, representing the only vehicle of this type found in Italy to date. A similar example was found 15 years ago inside a burial mound in Thrace, Greece, but that chariot lacks the rich decorations that adorn the new discovery from Pompeii. The Pompeiian chariot is decorated on the two long sides with alternating carved bronze sheets and wooden panels painted red and black, whilst the back features bronze and tin medallions depicting scenes related to Eros, with satyrs, nymphs, cupids, and other motifs associated with erotic themes.
The chariot is a ceremonial vehicle, which would have been used in festive parades, processions, and events, rather than being intended for everyday use or agricultural purposes. Historical sources mention the pilentum being used by priestesses and ladies, and the decorations on the chariot have led to suggestions that it may have been used in rituals related to female deities, or for occasions like marriages, in order to lead the bride to the wedding or her new home.
Once the conservation and restoration process has been completed, the chariot will be placed on display in the Archaeological Park of Pompeii.