In 2019 excavations began in Civita Giuliana, a district to the north of the ancient city of Pompeii, in a suburban villa which had been partly identified and investigated in the early twentieth century and returned to the centre of attention due to illegal exploration by tomb raiders. The excavation was unprecedented both in the way it began and due to the extraordinary discoveries made there. The finds included a ceremonial chariot with luxurious bronze and silver decoration in an excellent state of preservation.
The chariot has now been reconstructed with the addition of missing parts which left imprints in the ash and were recovered using plaster casts. It can finally be admired in its original form and size and will be on display in the exhibition “The instant and eternity. Between us and the ancients”, which will be held at the Museo Nazionale Romano from 4 May to 30 July 2023.
The operation began in 2017 with the collaboration between the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Torre Annunziata, the Carabinieri of the Art Theft Squad for Campania and the Investigative Unit of Torre Annunziata and the Archaeological Park of Pompeii which was designed to stop the illegal activities of tomb raiders and the looting of the archaeological heritage of the area.
In 2019 this cooperative initiative resulted in a Memorandum of Understanding for legality being signed by various institutions aimed at combatting illegal activities in the territory around Vesuvius. The ensuing excavation led to the discovery and recovery of rooms and finds of immense historical and scientific importance: they include a stable with the remains of several horses, and even a harnessed horse (from which it has proved possible to make the first ever plaster cast), a room for slaves and the ceremonial chariot in the servants’ quarters of the villa, as well as plaster casts of two victims of the eruption in the residential sector.
“This is an absolute gem that demonstrates, if further proof were needed, the unique nature of Italian heritage,” stated Gennaro Sangiuliano, the Italian Minister of Culture. The restoration and display of the chariot do not just represent the recovery of an exceptional find for citizens and scholars, but also the crowning achievement of a concerted effort involving the collective resources of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Torre Annunziata and the Carabinieri of the Art Theft Squad. It will encourage us to strive even harder, fully aware of our heritage, which is both the legacy of a great past but also an opportunity for civic and socio-economic growth in the future”.
The splendid four-wheeled ceremonial chariot was found with its iron components, the stunning bronze and silver decoration depicting erotic images, the mineralised wooden parts, and the imprints of organic elements (including rope and the remains of plant decorations). It was discovered almost intact in a portico in front of the stables together with the remains of three horses.
It is a unique discovery in Italy in terms of its state of preservation, given that the individual decorative items and the entire structure of the vehicle have emerged. However, its exceptional importance also stems from the fact that it was not a cart for transporting agricultural produce or for performing daily activities, examples of which have already been discovered both at Pompeii and Stabiae. The chariot can be identified as a pilentum, a vehicle used in the Roman world by elites for ceremonies and, in particular, for accompanying the bride to her new house.
The chariot is a unique and fragile discovery due both to its delicate state of preservation and the context of its discovery, and to the work required for its retrieval, restoration, reconstruction and display to the public. It fully embodies the sense of transience and eternity provided by history through the evidence of Italy’s extraordinary cultural heritage.
“When the chariot was discovered during the excavation, it was of exceptional importance due to the information it offered about this form of transport – a ceremonial vehicle – which has no parallel in Italy. A similar chariot had been found years ago in Greece, at a site in ancient Thrace, in a tomb belonging to a high-ranking family, although the vehicle was left in situ. This is the first time that a pilentum has ever been reconstructed and carefully studied,” says Massimo Osanna, Director General of Italian Museums, under whose supervision as Director of the Park of Pompeii all the activities began in 2018, including the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding agreed with the Public Prosecutor’s Office. “The excavations carried out at Civita Giuliana also marked the application of an excavation methodology to the entire context, which was already standard practice at Pompeii, involving a multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, architects, engineers, volcanologists, anthropologists and archaeobotanists. The current restoration of the chariot and its presentation to the public reflect a much wider-ranging story of safeguarding Italy’s cultural heritage”.
“Besides its scientific importance, the chariot is the symbol of a virtuous process of legality, protection and enhancement not just of individual finds but of the whole territory around Vesuvius,” adds Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the current Park Director. “The work marked the beginning of operations designed to expropriate illegal structures in order to continue exploring the site and it also involved several institutions cooperating in pursuit of the same objective. As well as the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Carabinieri, the town council of Pompei has also made a significant contribution in its management of urban road traffic which was inevitably affected by the ongoing excavations. The display of the precious finds marks a starting point towards a more ambitious aim which involves making the whole villa accessible to the general public”.
The exhibition in which the chariot is displayed has been promoted by the Italian Ministry of Culture and the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sport (Ephorate of Antiquities of the Cyclades) and reflects the crucial importance of collaboration between the two countries. Organised by the Directorate General of Museums and the Museo Nazionale Romano in conjunction with the art publishers Electa, the exhibition was devised and curated by Massimo Osanna, Stéphane Verger, Maria Luisa Catoni and Demetrios Athanasoulis, with the support of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii and the participation of the Scuola IMT Alti Studi Lucca and the Scuola Superiore Meridionale.