Archaeologists find treasure trove of charms and gems belonging to women in Pompeii

Archaeologists exploring a house that had been buried by volcanic ash in Pompei nearly 2,000 years ago made an amazing discovery by finding a collection box of gems, charms and other objects that presumably belonged to women.

First excavated in 1953, the House of the Garden of Hercules has been long considered one of the most beautiful sites to visit in Pompei, boasting of courtyards filled with shrubs and flowers.

House of the Garden in Pompei. Image via Archaeological Park of Pompei.

According to the Archaeological Park of Pompei:

It falls under the terraced type of homes, atrium houses with no side chambers, which are typical in this area of the city. The entrance leads to the courtyard which gives access to the large garden at the end of the house, with irrigation canals.

The pollen analyses allowed this garden to be considered a place of cultivation of flowers (roses, violets, lilies).

Ancient literary sources explain how these flowers were used in ointments, which were stored and sold in small terracotta and glass containers, found here in large quantities. The house, therefore, was also used as a shop for the production and sale of perfumes.

It can be dated back to the 3rd century BC and owes its name to the marble statuette of Hercules found in a small aedicula in the eastern part of the garden.

House of the Garden in Pompei. Image via Archaeological Park of Pompei.
Statue of Hercules found at the House of the Garden in Pompeii. Image via University of Maryland.

The home likely belonged to a wealthy Roman family, but in 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the home and the rest of Pompei in volcanic ash, which preserved the remains of the house and the people who sadly died inside.

A courtyard at the House of the Garden in Pompei. Image via Archaeological Park of Pompeii.

Excavations would continue on and off for decades, and one would have thought that there would be nothing more to be found. That is, until researchers came upon a decayed wooden box containing a treasure trove of objects that were likely collected by female servants or slaves, who are often forgotten by history.

“Amulets, gems and small objects re-emerge from the excavation of the Regio V,” the park stated in a press release On Monday. “They were related to the female world, used for personal ornamentation or to protect from bad luck. They were found in one of the rooms of the House of the Garden.”

The objects were carefully removed and cleaned up while the box has been restored, only the hinges surviving all these years under the ash.

Placed in a wooden box, it has been restored and has been brought to its former glory by the restorers of the Laboratory of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. They were probably objects that the inhabitants of the house could not take away before they escaped.

The wood of the box has decomposed and only the bronze hinges remain, well preserved under the volcanic material.

As for the objects, it’s a variety of gems, figures and jewelry pieces unlike anything found in Pompei before.

Figures and objects found with the collection in the House of Garden. Image via Archaeological Park of Pompei.
Skull and animals figurines found in the collection at the House of the Garden. Image via Archaeological Park of Pompei.

Among the numerous objects found, two mirrors, pieces of necklace, decorative elements made of faïence, bronze, bone and amber, a glass unguentary, phallic amulets, a human figure and various gems (including an amethyst with a female figure and a carnelian with a craftsman figure). In a glass paste is engraved the head of Dionysus, on another a dancing satyr.

The high quality of the amber and glass pastes and the engraving of the figures confirm the importance of the domus owner.

Soon the jewels will be exhibited, with other Pompeian jewels, at the Palestra Grande, in an exhibition that will be a follow-up of “Vanity”, the exhibition dedicated to jewels from the Cyclades and Pompeii, as well as from other sites in Campania.

A closer look at the collection found in the House of the Garden. Image via Archaeological Park of Pompei.

“They are objects of everyday life in the female world and are extraordinary because they tell micro-stories, biographies of the inhabitants of the city who tried to escape the eruption,” Archaeological Park of Pompei General Director Massimo Osanna said in a statement.

“In the same house, we discovered a room with ten victims, including women and children, and now we are trying to establish kinship relationships, thanks to DNA analysis,” he continued, going on to speculate on ownership of the box and its precious contents.

“Perhaps the precious box belonged to one of these victims,” he said. “Interesting is the iconography of objects and amulets, which invoke fortune, fertility and protection against bad luck. And the numerous pendants in the shape of small phallus, or the ear, the closed fist, the skull, the figure of Harpocrates, the scarabs. Symbols and iconographies that are now being studied to understand their meaning and function.”

Victims of the volcanic eruption preserved by the ash in Pompei. Image via Wikimedia.
Part of the collection found in the House of the Garden. Image via Archaeological Park of Pompei.

Indeed, the box and the many objects it yielded ought to keep researchers busy for some time, but we will never know if one of the victims found in the house owned them.

The sad reality is that while we know much about Pompei and the natural disaster that doomed it, we only know so much about the people who lived there and their last moments. All of the victims we have found have no names. But because of finds like this one, we will only continue to get to know them and learn about the way they lived, ensuring that even the most often ignored and forgotten members of society will be forever remembered.

More from the Vanity exhibition below:

Featured Image: Archaeological Park of Pompei

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