There’s a scene in my archaeological mystery/romance The Five-Day-Dig where the excavation team comes across nails, hinges, locks and braces scattered on a floor among the ruins. “That’s what’s left of furniture after the wood decomposes,” one of the characters explains. “These fittings were parts of chests, cabinets or shelves.” In Pompeii, most wooden items decomposed centuries ago, but there are some cases of 2,000-year-old wood surviving in the ancient town and in nearby Herculaneum, which was buried in the same eruption.
The bedside table you see here is not from Ikea (har!) — it’s from Herculaneum. Wandering through the small fraction of the town that has been excavated, you can see plenty of wooden beams, window and door frames, railings, bed frames and the large folding wooden screen that gave the House of the Wooden Partition its name. For more pics of ancient Roman wooden furniture, see this very cool blog post from Bensozia.
Pompeii doesn’t seem to have as much surviving wood as Herculaneum, but archaeologists have made plaster casts (like the plaster body casts you’ve probably seen) of some of the decomposed wooden items. When Hubby and I went, we saw casts of wooden doors and shutters, but we missed the casts of furniture in the House of Julius Polybius. Something to check out next time — because we totally need another trip to Pompeii. 😉
In The Five-Day Dig, TV host Dunk Mortill, determined to save his archaeology show from being cancelled, hopes to find ancient scrolls during an excavation outside Pompeii. At the same time, he suspects a local priest of trying to get to the texts first and suppress them.
In reality, the only ancient library known to have survived the millennia and the anti-intellectual climate of the Dark Ages is one found at Herculaneum, a town destroyed in the same eruption that buried Pompeii. The story goes that the men who found the charred scrolls in 1753 initially took them for logs and burned some before realizing what they had. Once identified, the scrolls proved almost impossible to unravel without destroying them. In recent years, multi-spectral imaging and CT scans have been used to read them without unrolling the delicate papyrus.
To this day, not all of the texts have been transcribed, but most appear to be Greek writings on Epicurean philosophy. The question is whether a Latin section of the library is still buried in the so-called Villa of the Papyri, which has never been fully excavated. Classicists wonder whether lost works from Roman antiquity might still be found there. Biblical scholars would love to dig up documentation of early Christianity. Unfortunately, problems with groundwater and other preservation issues are preventing further excavation.
For more info on the scrolls from the Villa of the Papyri, hop over to UCLA’s Philodemus Project website here or see this article in The Australian.