Elaborate ancient Roman chariot found near Pompeii declared 'exceptional' by archaeologists

Nick Squires
·4-min read
A detail of the decoration of a chariot, with its iron elements, bronze decorations and mineralized wooden remains, that was found in Civita Giuliana - Parco Archeologico di Pompei via AP
A detail of the decoration of a chariot, with its iron elements, bronze decorations and mineralized wooden remains, that was found in Civita Giuliana - Parco Archeologico di Pompei via AP

Archeologists have described as “exceptional” the discovery of an ancient Roman chariot, decorated with male and female erotic figures, near the town of Pompeii.

The large, four-wheeled ceremonial chariot was found in the remains of a villa to the north of the ancient Roman town, which was buried in ash after the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in AD 79.

Decorated with cupids, nymphs and satyrs, it could have been used in parades or as a way of conveying a wealthy bride to her wedding, experts said.

The chariot, known in Latin as a pilentum, would have been used by the Roman elite for ceremonies and would have carried one or two people.

Archeologists unearthed the iron components of the chariot as well as “beautiful bronze and tin decorations and mineralised wood remains,” they said in a statement.

Officials at the Pompeii archaeological site near Naples have announced the first-ever discovery of an intact ceremonial chariot - Parco Archeologico di Pompei via AP
Officials at the Pompeii archaeological site near Naples have announced the first-ever discovery of an intact ceremonial chariot - Parco Archeologico di Pompei via AP

“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, but above all because it represents a unique find - which has no parallel in Italy thus far - in an excellent state of preservation,” the said.

The chariot was found in a portico facing a stable where the remains of three horses, one of which was still in its bronze harness, were found in 2018.

Archeologists have been excavating the area, known as Civita Giuliana, to deter looting of ancient remains by grave-diggers, who sink tunnels and steal whatever valuable remains they find.

The chariot was lucky to have escaped the depredations of looters.

It had “miraculously been spared by both the collapse of the walls and ceiling of the room and by the illegal activities, with tunnels passing it by on two sides.”

As archeologists burrowed down to a depth of six metres, they had to carry out their excavations carefully because they were close to modern houses and apartments, bringing the risk of subsidence.

The portico in which the chariot was found had a robust ceiling made of oak beams, while the door to the portico was made of beech.

A detail of what scientists presume to be a Pilentum, a four-wheeled ceremonial chariot - Press Office of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii 
A detail of what scientists presume to be a Pilentum, a four-wheeled ceremonial chariot - Press Office of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii

The fragility of the chariot made it a particularly delicate excavation, experts said.

The remains of the chariot were transferred to the laboratory of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, where they will undergo further restoration. The charity will then be reconstructed and put on display.

“Pompeii continues to amaze with all of its discoveries, and it will continue to do so for many years yet, with 20 hectares still to be excavated,” said Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister.

Without the intervention of archeologists, public prosecutors and a specialised unit of the Carabinieri police, the chariot could have been looted and sold on the black market, he said.

Massimo Osanna, the outgoing director of Pompeii, said chariots had been found in the area before but “nothing like” this latest discovery.

“What we have is a ceremonial chariot which was employed not for everyday use or for agricultural transport, but to accompany community festivities, parades and processions.

“Considering that the ancient sources allude to the use of the pilentum by priestesses and ladies, one cannot exclude the possibility that this could have been a chariot used for rituals relating to marriage, for leading the bride to her new household," he said.

The chariot was similar to one which was found 15 years ago inside a burial mound in Thrace in northern Greece.

The chariot had been saved from “the systematic looting” of the villa and its surrounding area, said Nunzio Fragliasso, chief prosecutor for the nearby town of Torre Annunziata.

Grave diggers had excavated a “complex” network of tunnels down to a depth of five metres and two are currently on trial, accused of stealing priceless cultural heritage, he said.