Archaeologists from the University of Tokyo have found on the northern slopes of Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy, part of a building that could have been the villa of the first Roman emperor, Augustus.

Through radiocarbon dating and physicochemical analysis of the volcanic rock covering the building, it has been demonstrated that it was in operation in the first half of the 1st century AD and was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The excavations are part of the Somma Vesuviana Project of the University of Tokyo led by Professor Mariko Muramatsu, which has been conducting excavations at the site of the ancient city of Somma Vesuviana in Stalza della Regina, in the Campania region, since 2002.

View of the discovery site, with the excavation in the foreground
View of the discovery site, with the excavation in the foreground. Credit: UT Project Somma Vesuviana / University of Tokyo

In the 2023 excavation campaign, it was confirmed that an underlying building discovered is part of a structure that could have been the place where the first Roman emperor Augustus spent his last days.

Within this building, scattered debris such as collapsed walls and roof tiles that collapsed due to the impact of the eruption, such as pyroclastic flows, were found. This reveals that, although it was believed that the effects of the eruption in the northern region at the foot of Mount Vesuvius were minor compared to the southeast of the mountain, there was also a destructive impact in this area.

Furthermore, archaeologists confirmed that a new building was constructed around the mid-2nd century using parts of the ruins destroyed by the eruption in 79 AD. Through the changes in this building, it was revealed that this site in Somma Vesuviana is the only archaeological site where the process from “disaster” to “recovery” in the surrounding region of Mount Vesuvius can be traced.

Another view of the excavations of the villa of Augustus
Another view of the excavations of the villa of Augustus. Credit: UT Project Somma Vesuviana / University of Tokyo

Ancient Roman sources, such as Tacitus and Suetonius, record that Emperor Augustus passed away in a villa located north of Mount Vesuvius in 14 AD and that later this villa was dedicated as a memorial place in his honor, but its exact location had not been identified until now.

Therefore, based on this hypothesis, the University of Tokyo began excavation in Stalza della Regina in ancient Somma Vesuviana in 2002.

Based on the results of radiometric dating of charcoal samples extracted from “oven” structures (facilities normally associated with public baths, among others) discovered in the 2023 excavations, most of which concentrate in the first half of the 1st century AD, it has been demonstrated that these ovens ceased to be used shortly after the death of Emperor Augustus. This finding is consistent with literary records related to the emperor.

Detail of the excavations
Detail of the excavations. Credit: UT Project Somma Vesuviana / University of Tokyo

Additionally, it has been revealed that after ceasing to use the “ovens,” the structures were used differently, and large 1st-century amphorae that were found standing vertically on the walls have been discovered, indicating that these structures were being used as warehouses and were destroyed and buried by the eruption of 79 AD.

Until now, vulcanological studies had considered that the northern region of Mount Vesuvius, including Somma Vesuviana, had experienced minor damage due to the eruption of 79 AD, and it was beyond the reach of volcanic pyroclastic deposits.

Additionally, ruins affected by the eruption of 79 AD had not been discovered in this area until now. However, the analysis of the pyroclastic deposits collected at the site has revealed that they belong to a group known as Eruption Unit 3 (EU3), which is associated with the eruption that destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD, thus demonstrating that the impact of the eruption of 79 AD was more extensive than previously thought.

Ceramics found in the villa
Ceramics found in the villa. Credit: UT Project Somma Vesuviana / University of Tokyo

Although buildings from the time of Emperor Augustus suffered devastating damage due to the eruption, a new building was constructed around the mid-2nd century using parts of the buildings that were still exposed on the surface.

Because areas like Pompeii, located south of Vesuvius, were covered by volcanic deposits several meters thick, they were not recovered until the end of the medieval period. However, research in Somma Vesuviana, located to the north, has revealed for the first time the recovery process from disaster to the Roman period.

This provides a clue to addressing the challenge of coexistence between natural disasters and human society in the contemporary world.


Sources

University of Tokyo | UT Project Somma Vesuviana


  • Share this article:

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.