Mummified human remains discovered at Pompeii

Wax tablet archives revealed that the buried individual was a public slave and a custodian of the Temple of Venus.

The partially mummified remains of a freed Roman slave have been discovered within a tomb at Pompeii, offering archaeologists insights into the burial rituals and cultural climate that characterised the ancient city.

At the Porta Sarno necropolis, east of the urban centre of Pompeii, archaeologists unearthed a tomb containing the well-preserved remains of a human skeleton. Image: Archaeological Park of Pompeii, Cesara Abbate.

The discovery was made during an excavation campaign jointly carried out by the Archaeological Park of Pompeii and the University of Valencia at the Porta Sarno necropolis.

The skeletal remains were found in the single cell of a tomb dating to the final decades before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (AD 79). Traces of paint suggest the tomb’s façade was decorated.

The tomb was uncovered during recent excavations. Image: Archaeological Park of Pompeii, Cesara Abbate.

On examining the deceased, the team noted that strands of white hair and part of an ear are still visible; the skeleton has been described as one of the best-preserved examples ever discovered at Pompeii.

Initial osteological analysis indicated the deceased was 60 years old at the time of death, and grave goods recovered from the tomb included two glass unguentaria (or tears vessels) and pieces of fabric.

The deceased was partially mummified: note the remains of white hair on the scalp, and the shape of the left ear. Image: Archaeological Park of Pompeii, Cesara Abbate.

‘The extraordinary wealth of information offered by this tomb, from the inscription to the burials, the osteological finds and the painted façade, is exceptional,’ said Professor Llorenç Alapont of the University of Valencia.

‘We still need to understand whether the partial mummification of the deceased is due to intentional treatment or notanalysis of the fabric could provide further information on this.’

A marble slab bearing a commemorative inscription to the tomb’s occupant enabled the identification of the deceased as Marcus Venerius Secundio.

Wax tablet archives kept by a Pompeiian banker revealed that Marcus Venerius Secundio was a public slave and a custodian of the Temple of Venus. Upon being freed, Secundio joined the Augustales, an order of priests devoted to the worship of the Imperial Cult. Secundio appears to have achieved a certain socioeconomic status – as exemplified by this monumental burial.

Yet the burial is highly unusual as adults were typically cremated in accordance with ancient Roman funerary rites – only children were reserved for burial.

Two cinerary urns containing cremated human remains were also found in the tomb, one of which is marked with the inscription ‘Novia Amabilis’, which translates as ‘kind wife’.

CESARE ABBATE One of the cinerary urns containing cremated human remains. Image: Archaeological Park of Pompeii, Cesara Abbate.

Additionally, the epigraph on the marble slab noted that Marcus Venerius Secundio ‘gave Greek and Latin ludi’.

Ludi graeci are to be understood as performances in the Greek language,’ said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, Director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. ‘It is the first clear evidence of performances at Pompeii in the Greek language.’

‘That performances in Greek were organised is evidence of the lively and open cultural climate which characterised ancient Pompeii.’

The remains have been transported to the Laboratory of Applied Research at Pompeii for in-depth analysis and conservation.

Work has begun to ensure the maintenance of the Porta Sarno necropolis, as part of a wider project seeking to restore the area, with a prospective aim of allowing access to visitors.

Text: Florence Chilver.