ROME–Archaeologists at the ongoing dig in the ancient city of Pompeii, buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., couldn’t believe their eyes when they found the remains of a wooden box filled with tiny penises carved from stone, buttons made of bones, marble closed fists and even a miniature sculpted skull that are thought to be part of a sorcerer’s treasure trove.
Pompeii’s chief archaeologist Massimo Osanna said the amazing artifacts were most certainly used in rituals tied to seduction, sex, fertility, and even warding off death.
“There are dozens of good luck charms next to other objects that were attributed to the power of crushing bad luck,” he said, describing the scarabs, or beetle-shaped amulets, that would have been brought from the Middle East that were used to ensure resurrection and immortality in the ancient world.
The box also contained a minuscule likeness of Harpocrates, the god of silence and secrets, and two small mirrors, pieces of jewelry, and a glass carving of Dionysus, the Roman god of wine, fertility, ritual madness and religious ecstasy. The sheer range of symbolism represented could have meant that the owner of the objects was likely a female sorceress who performed a number of different rituals. This was something akin to her tool kit.
Osanna believes that the woman who likely owned them was a slave because none of the objects were made of gold, and perhaps only used in rituals among lower ranking Pompeiians. He also said that they were not likely worn as ornamental jewelry but instead worn or carried only during underworld activities.
“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,” Osanna said in a statement published on the Pompeii archaeological website. “In the same house, we discovered a room with 10 victims, including women and children.” They are now using DNA to determine whether the victims were related or had simply gathered there as Vesuvius rumbled above.
The incredible find was discovered in the House of the Garden in a newly excavated section of the ancient archaeological site that is thought to have belonged to a man of considerable status based on the quality of some of the other artifacts and paintings found in the dwelling. An inscription in this particular house found last year also hinted that perhaps Vesuvius erupted in October, 79 A.D., not December, as historians have been led to believe.
Excavation work has been ongoing at the site since the late 16th century, stopping and starting with invasions, wars, natural disasters and budget crises. Most recently, the site planners have come under heavy criticism for excavating too much of the area, which is covered by a thick layer of volcanic ash that has effectively preserved so much of the ancient site. In 2012, Italy’s culture ministry launched the Great Pompeii Project, injecting around $120 million to ramp up excavation work with little focus on preservation of what has already been uncovered.
Some experts say that leaving the ash in place is the only way to save the site from man-made disasters, including neglect. “They seem not to realize that the enthusiasm for archaeology is committing an act of vandalism to volcanology,” Roberto Scandone, a professor of volcanology at the Roma Tre University told the Guardian recently. “Leaving some of the deposits in place is valuable not only for scientists but also for visitors, who will be able to see at first hand how the volcano destroyed the town.”
Osanna told The Daily Beast that the fascinating trinkets are now being studied to better understand just how they were used. They will be put on display later this year in an exhibition on the site.