Four-wheeled ceremonial chariot found at Pompeii

Today’s Pompeii news is even showier than yesterday’s. A uniquely well-preserved ceremonial carriage has been discovered in a grand villa in the Pompeiian suburb of Civita Giuliana. The chariot is complete with four iron wheels, bronze and tin relief panels, carbonized wood elements and even the imprint of organic fittings like ropes and floral decorations.

This is an exceptional discovery, not only because it adds an additional element to the history of this dwelling and the story of the last moments in the lives of those who lived in it, as well as more generally to our understanding of the ancient world, but above all because it represents a unique find – which has no parallel in Italy thus far – in an excellent state of preservation.

Transport vehicles, including chariots, have been found at Pompeii, but this was something else entirely. Known as a pilentum, ancient sources including Livy and Virgil refer these carriages being used for special occasions (parades, festivals, sacred rites) only. The rear of the chariot is decorated with medallions that depicts satyrs, nymphs and erotes. Livy and Virgil mention their use by matrons and priestesses, so it’s possible it was used in rituals associated with womanhood, carrying a bride on her wedding day, for example.

Modern excavation of the luxury villa half a mile northwest of the city walls began in 2017 after looting tunnels were discovered. The dig has been exceptionally productive, unearthing the remains of the first complete horse ever found at Pompeii, a carbonized wood bed and two people, all of which were cast in plaster. The carriage was found in the portico facing the stables where the horse was discovered.

The portico is an exceptional find in its own right. It had two levels opening onto a courtyard. The ceiling collapsed during the eruption of Vesuvius, but its wooden beams were carbonized and preserved by the intense heat, leaving the interlaced network of timbers on the ground in their original positions. A door on the southern end of the room which opened from the portico to the stable was also preserved. Analysis of the ceiling wood found it was English oak, widely used in the Roman era for structural purposes. The door was found to be beechwood.

The ceiling timbers were removed for conservation and it was in the layers beneath that the iron chariot emerged. Archaeologists first encountered the curved iron top edge of the carriage. Its large size and shape telegraphed that the object was a significant one, and as the excavation proceeded at a cautiously slow pace over the course of weeks, its unprecedented importance was revealed. Its survival is nothing short of miracle. The chariot managed to avoid getting obliterated by the collapse of the ceiling in 79 A.D. AND the tunnels dug by the looters were within a hair’s breadth of hitting it. They would have torn it apart like locusts had they known.

From the moment it was identified, the excavation of the chariot has proved to be particularly complex due to the fragility of the materials involved and the difficult working conditions; as a result, it was necessary to proceed by means of a micro-excavation conducted by the restorers of the Park, who are specialised in the treatment of wood and metals. At the same time, whenever a void was discovered, plaster was poured in as part of an attempt to preserve the imprint of the organic material that was no longer present. Consequently, it has been possible to preserve the shaft and platform of the chariot, as well as the imprints of ropes, thus revealing the chariot in all of its complexity. […]

With the in situ micro-excavation completed, the various elements of the chariot have been transported to the laboratory of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, where the restorers are working to complete the removal of volcanic material which still engulfs certain metal elements, and to begin the lengthy restoration and reconstruction of the chariot.