Since their discoveries, the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum have captured the public’s imagination and have thus occupied the attention of the academic community in the field of classical archaeology, and rightly so. However, the wealth of archaeology lying neglected on the northern slope of Mount Vesuvius is too often underestimated. There survives a world of undiscovered mystery surrounding the volcano, waiting to be unearthed, and it is only recently that these dormant remains have been considered for research.
The Apolline Project is truly a pioneer in this illumination of what is now termed ‘the dark side of Vesuvius’. Its primary ambition is to piece together the untold pasts of the ancient territories of Nola and Neapolis through archaeology, volcanology, palaeobotany, excavation, and finds analysis, having made remarkable progress so far.
Story of what happened next
The recent exhibition at the British Museum that highlighted Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as the new Hollywood blockbuster Pompeii, are testament to the public’s thirst for insight into the impact of the Vesuvian eruptions. So far the famous Plinian eruption of AD 79 has been the focal point in the region’s long history, despite the volcano having inflicted numerous eruptions upon the Italian landscape throughout antiquity. This has led to a noticeable lack of knowledge concerning the consequences of the volcanic eruptions for those settlements that survived and were dramatically affected by these cataclysms.
It is the desire of the Apolline Project to see these forgotten lands and eras appropriately studied, so that archaeologists may tell the stories of those who had to carry on after the eruptions…the story of what happened next.
The incredibly fertile landscape around Mount Vesuvius has always made it an idyllic and desirable setting for human occupation. Rich in minerals, rivers, and hot springs, this fertile volcanic landscape is as inviting as it is precarious, yielding a wealth of foodstuffs such as olives, hazelnuts, shellfish, figs, and grapes to name a few. Archaeological discoveries such as ancient ploughed fields, orchards, vineyards, and Roman centuriation grids demonstrate that in antiquity the region was thoroughly exploited for agricultural practices and the cultivation of a wide variety of crops, just as it is today.
Considering this abundance and variety of natural resources, from foodstuffs and fuel to natural building materials, the northern territories of Nola and Neapolis were well placed to become centres of mass industrial activity. Ancient literary sources even testify to this; for example, Strabo described the area as “dotted all around with cities, buildings, and plantations, so thoroughly intertwined that it resembles closely a metropolis”. Wine, in particular, was a valuable export for this prosperous region, supporting trade connections as far as Britannia and India. Understanding the exact nature of the communications and exchange processes within this region both before and after AD 79 has become the principle pursuit of the Apolline Project, which seeks to understand not just the people who lived in these times, but what the economic and industrial landscape would have looked like.
Unfortunately, the region of Campania has been intensively settled and urbanised and as a result, only a small percentage of its vast history has been brought to light. This presents a real obstacle to archaeologists who are trying to paint an accurate picture of what this area looked like in the past.
All is not lost, however. The sites lying on the northern slope have given the field of archaeology something unique. Their long spans of occupation feature multiple stages of recovery and repopulation that provide clear, rich stratigraphies, allowing for the creation of extended chronologies and timelines.
The aforementioned bath and villa site is located in the town of Pollena Trocchia. With help from volunteers and international participants, the progress made in the last few years of excavation has been astounding. Since 2005, almost the entirety of the Roman baths have been unearthed, revealing attributes that have led us to believe that it was part of a larger villa complex now buried underneath the adjacent modern block of flats. The discovery of the volcanic material deposited by the AD 79 eruption was also interesting, since it proved that this villa complex, or the baths at least, were built in the years after the eruption. As a result, the insight that the finds have provided in terms of both the inhabitants and their impetus to settle there has been extraordinary. For instance, the discovery of a brick stamp imprinted onto a tile lining the bath’s hypocaust shows the distinct mark of the Domitii brothers, a prosperous family from Rome who produced this stamp between the years of AD 75 and AD 95. This connection with Rome, along with the many lavish finds, suggests that the inhabitants of this site were very affluent and settled there soon after the eruption of AD 79, perhaps tempted by the fertile earth left by the volcano.
Rich data from the site at Pollena Trocchia, obtained through charcoal analysis, has revealed the exact species of carbonised vegetation and even offers insight into how they were cultivated to shape the Roman landscape. For example, evidence of chestnut (a known construction timber used by the Romans) suggests that the late antique woodland on the north slope of Vesuvius may have been partially and purposefully composed of chestnut trees. In fact, the plethora of woodland that blanketed Mount Vesuvius in Roman times was also required in vast quantities for fuelling industries such as pottery-making and iron-smithing. It also played a more domestic role in cooking and in the heating of Roman baths. By identifying evidence of activities that would have incorporated wood, as well as remains of wood itself, archaeologists and paleobotanists alike are investigating the transportation and management of ancient forests, and whether the woodland of Vesuvius was enough to satisfy the enormous demand for timber.
Not all archaeological finds, however, are as easily comprehensible. Only a few years ago, the remains of two children were discovered buried in two small amphorae. Amphorae are large pottery vessels that were usually used for transporting wine and other foodstuffs, but they were also occasionally used for infant burials. So far the tale surrounding these children, possibly twins, remains a mystery.
Destroyed by lahars
The occupation of this site may have ended the way it began, with a volcanic eruption. This eruption however, struck on November 6th, AD 472, the site itself being destroyed by lahars during the secondary response. The lahars were produced by the eruption, creating a climatic disturbance that caused severe downpours of rain, which then flowed rapidly down the mountainsides, picking up literally tons of ash and mud on their way. As devastating as this event was, the stratigraphy it left behind has been indispensable to our archaeological research.
Of course, Pollena is not the only site associated with the Apolline Project. For example, the grand villa complex at Somma Vesuviana boasts a long and mysterious history, with speculations as to its ownership and function. Around the time of its discovery, it was even thought to have been owned by the Emperor Augustus himself. Originally a luxurious stately home, the function of the building changed after the AD 79 eruption, and there are strong indications that it might have been an industrial centre for the mass production of wine. During excavations by the University of Tokyo, a plethora of Dionysiac imagery and motifs have been found throughout the structure, strongly conveying Dionysus, the Roman God of wine and merriment, as the patron diety. One beautiful, well-preserved, marble statue particularly evokes this: it features the god holding a panther cub, a very rare pose. Due to the size and discoveries made at this site, it is well known within the field of Roman archaeology. It is this scale of attention that the Apolline Project hopes to achieve for the Pollena excavations as well. In turn, the Villa of Lauro, also in this region, has had its fair share of archaeological attention. Abandoned after the AD 472 eruption, these Roman baths are thought to have belonged to a larger villa complex, much like those at Pollena Trocchia. Thanks to an extraordinary fresco found in Lancellotti Castle nearby, we can deduce that much of this villa was removed to construct the church of San Giovanni del Palco. The most notable feature of the site, however, is the fantastic decoration of the baths themselves. They are known as ‘The Blue Baths’, as the walls, flooring, and stone furnishings are studded with bold blue tesserae, shells and other decorative materials. The surviving mosaics depict detailed scenes involving various birds, plant life, and deer hunting.
Using secondary sources such as maps and literary accounts alongside the actual excavations, the project has been able to construct local archaeological maps of the area around Nola and Neapolis, thus giving back to the modern day residents a sense of their history and identity. In fact, the Apolline Project eagerly engages with local landowners and enthusiasts to give the community an active role in the search for their heritage, a quest that will continue for generations to come.
Header image: Excavating through the volcanic ash layer has uncovered still intact bath house brick walling. Image: Apolline Project
Cite this article
Leah Powell. Apolline Project: new discoveries on the dark side of Vesuvius. Past Horizons. March 06, 2014, from http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/03/2014/apolline-project-new-discoveries-on-the-dark-side-of-vesuvius