12. Treasure, ruins and myths

Treasure, ruins, and myths are about as good as it gets in archaeology, and mystery is omnipresent, but of course none of these things interest professional archaeologists, not one bit, not at all. Archaeologists value things that are more rare and precious than treasure.
To find somebody’s best belongings stacked in a tomb is not that uncommon, but to find them in the space where they belong and interacted with their owner is extraordinary. The chance survival of built environments, complete with contents, is probably the most valuable type of archaeological find imaginable, and luckily, it has happened a number of times.

Roman interior design: a fresco from Pompeii

Volcanoes are probably the best agency. Eruptions are usually fairly sudden, and people often escape, but invariably leave most of their possessions behind to be entombed in volcanic ash. Pompeii and its neighbour Herculaneum, buried by Vesuvius in AD 79, is the best-known example. We have the eyewitness account of this eruption written by Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundas), a Roman official and author, who later died in the eruption, probably while organising the naval rescue of trapped inhabitants.
The remains of buildings, their contents, and even some unfortunate occupants and their pets, represent a time capsule of the material world of AD 79, giving archaeologists an unprecedented ‘context’ with a calendar date, and hundreds of thousands of finds that belong together. At Pompeii, not only do we a have house with its contents and decoration remarkably preserved, but also we may have the names of the owners, whose taste and status it reflects. We can glimpse a wealth of biographical details and find tantalizing evidence of their personal history, social interactions, and business life, and we may even have their portraits.

Paquius Proculus and his wife, from their house in Pompeii

Many of the quality buildings in Pompeii have walls with frescoes, where the decorative designs and pictures were painted directly onto the walls when the plaster was still wet. They feature mythical and historical scenes, landscapes, portraits, and a wealth of visual detail of a world long since past. In their portraits we can see the house’s occupants as they wished to be perceived, and we are able to see how they chose to decorate their walls. Pompeii’s frescoes have given us an extraordinary sample of visual art from nearly 1500 years before the Sistine Chapel was painted. The Roman period is historical, so we have many other sources of information, and this allows us to understand what the images portray, and interpret their meaning fairly confidently.
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