A new discovery in Pompeii excites the world of culture

The Parco Archeologico di Pompei, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited site in the world, never ceases to amaze us. In fact, at the beginning of January, another work of extraordinary beauty and great historical and artistic value emerged from its bowels, further enhancing the collection of works from the Vesuvian park. It is a magnificent parade chariot that has emerged from the excavations of the villa of Civita Giuliana which has recently been giving archaeology enthusiasts much satisfaction with its important finds. A sensational discovery that has delighted the big names in Italian cultural politics, first and foremost the Minister of the Mibac, Dario Franceschini, who took the opportunity to renew his good wishes to the young new director of park of Pompeii, Gabriel Zuchtriegel. There was also great satisfaction and enthusiasm on the part of the outgoing director, Massimo Osanna, who described and analysed the artefact, extolling its particular quality. This enthusiasm was also caused by the umpteenth victory over the group of tomb robbers often in action in the area, who, fortunately, were deprived of a much sought-after booty. 

The Civita Giuliana excavations: the State and Culture against grave robbers

The discovery of the chariot is therefore a twofold victory, one of a scientific nature, the other of a legal nature, a success that is the result of fruitful cooperation between the Parco Archeologico di Pompei, the Procura di Torre Annunziata and the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale. In fact, the excavations of the villa of Civita Giuliana began in 2017 precisely thanks to an investigation launched by the Procura di Torre Annunziata  which discovered a numerous series of tunnels dug by expert grave robbers in the area of the villa, gangsters who unfortunately have stolen numerous finds over the years, as the same investigators and insiders have sadly stated. Paradoxically, one of them lives in the vicinity of the monument and, unfortunately, along with the other suspects, is still at large awaiting sentencing. Fortunately, the chariot has escaped from their criminal hands, like so many other artefacts that have been saved over the years thanks to the synergetic action of the best forces of the state and an entourage of excellent scholars and professionals, who on this occasion were able to act swiftly. In fact, two human remains, skilfully reconstructed using the cast technique, were recently found in the villa of Civita Giuliana. They were two victims of the Plinian eruption of 79 AD, and were among the last witnesses of the apocalyptic disaster. But the Vesuvian villa has also yielded the remains of three harnessed horses, which have also been skilfully reconstructed by means of casts, one of which could be the one pulling the precious chariot in question.

Description and iconography of the pilentum of Civita Giuliana

As described by Massimo Osanna, the chariot found is most probably a pilentum, a ceremonial chariot used only on great occasions. It is unique in the history of archaeological finds in Italy, and can only be compared to a group of chariots discovered some 15 years ago in a tomb in Thrace, on the border between Greece and Bulgaria. The chariot consists of a painted wooden box resting on four iron wheels. The caisson, decorated with tin and bronze reliefs on the back and sides, has a seat for two people with metal armrests and backrests. While the decorations on the long sides alternate between wooden panels painted in red and black and carved bronze plates, the back is characterised by a sumptuous three-register decoration with tin and bronze medallions of erotic subjects, a triumph of cupids, satyrs and nymphs intent on their love games. 

But what was the function of the precious chariot?

Two hypotheses have been put forward, which have been confirmed by a further detail found on the pilentum. On the seats, in fact, the imprints of a few ears of corn were found, which may be linked to the cult of Ceres, the goddess of fertility, much venerated in the Vesuvian city together with Venus, the goddess of Eros. Perhaps one or more priestesses dedicated to this particular cult lived in the villa and the cart may have been used for the associated rituals. But scholars, including Osanna, have opened up another interesting avenue. In fact, the presence of the ears of corn could also be interpreted as an omen for fertility, and the chariot could have been used to celebrate a wedding, to introduce the bride to her new home, as was the custom at the time. According to this hypothesis, the erotic textures of the decorative panels were intended to encourage the newlyweds to abandon themselves to the fire of passion. The definitive resolution of the iconographic enigma will certainly facilitate the identification of the mysterious and wealthy owners of the villa of Civita Giuliana in the future.