Tomb discovered in Pompeii is window into world scientists know little about

A 4th century B.C. intact grave, discovered by French archeologists recently, provides clues about an ancient society that's a mystery to us.

Ciro de Luca/Reuters/File
A partial view of the ancient archaeological site of Pompeii is pictured in front of Mt. Vesuvius in April, 2014.

The remains of an adult woman who lived in the bustling city of Pompeii centuries before a devastating volcanic eruption buried it were discovered recently by French archaeologists.

Scientists from the Centre Jean Bérard in nearby Naples estimate the woman was about 35 to 40 years old based on her remains, which were preserved in a nearly intact tomb from the 4th century B.C. Mt. Vesuvius erupted much later, in 79 A.D., destroying Pompeii. 

Alongside the woman, scientists found vases and clay jars, which might contain food, wine and cosmetics, according to History.com. They will study the objects over the next several weeks.

“It is an exceptional find for Pompeii because it throws light on the pre-Roman city about which we know so very little,” Massimo Osanna, the archaeological superintendent of Pompeii, told The Local in Italy.

Archaeologists discovered the tomb while digging up pottery studios near the Herculaneaum Gate, one of the gates to the ancient city. Beginning in about the 5th century B.C., when Italy was carved up into states that were occupied by Etruscan, Greek, Celtic, and other cultures, Pompeii was occupied by the Samnites. They were geographical neighbors to the Romans in south-central Italy, with whom they were always warring and who eventually took control of the entire Italian peninsula around 200 B.C.

Pompeii was a wealthy and bustling town at the time, full of elegant villas, open markets, factories, taverns, and a 20,000 seat arena. When nearby Mt. Vesuvius – still one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world – erupted, it buried Pompeii under millions of tons of volcanic ash, killing 2,000 of its inhabitants. The city was wiped off the map, but undisturbed and frozen in time until it was discovered in the 16th century and then excavated in the mid-18th.

Pompeii excavations are said to have launched the modern science of archaeology, and are still being carried out today by thousands of people.

The recent discovery of the Samnite tomb, fully intact, is significant because it suggests that the Romans who lived in Pompeii before the eruption knew about it, but didn’t disturb it. The tomb also survived looting, careless archaeological work, and heavy Allied bombing during World War II.

“It's a miracle that this has survived,” Mr. Osanna told The Local, “but I'm sure Pompeii has more gifts to give.”

Scientists think that the pottery buried near the newly discovered Samnite woman comes from other regions of Italy, suggesting that there was trade between the Samnites and the other cultures of Italy at that time. When the contents of the jars are identified, they will help explain the funerary practices of the time.

“The burial objects will show us much about the role of women in Samnite society and can provide us with a useful social insight,” Osanna said.

The discovery of this grave indicates to scientists that there are others nearby. As Osanna explains, “Tombs are not normally found alone.”

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