In Brief

A “Sorcerer’s Treasure Trove” Uncovered in Pompeii

The wooden box full of amulets, trinkets, and gems is believed to have belonged to a Roman sorceress, according to the Archaeological Park of Pompeii.

A “sorcerer’s treasure trove” was found in Pompeii (all images by Cesare Abbate, courtesy of ANSA)

Archeologists working in the ancient city of Pompeii, Italy, say they have unearthed a cache of amulets, good luck charms, gems, and other items of sorcery. The objects likely belonged to a Roman sorceress, officials at the Archaeological Park of Pompeii say.

The objects were found in a decaying wooden box with bronze hinges at Casa del Giardino in Region V of the archaeological park. The archeologists believe the objects were left behind as inhabitants of Pompeii tried to escape the volcanic eruption that destroyed the city in 79 AD.

The sorcery items include crystals, amber and amethyst stones, buttons made of bones, amulets, dolls, bells, phallic amulets, fists, human figurines, and a miniature human skull. A glass bead depicts the head of  Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and fertility. Another glass amulet features a dancing satyr.

Among the objects found, a miniature human skull.

“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,” said Massimo Osanna, the general director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, in a press release. “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 revealed. “Perhaps the precious box belonged to one of these victims.”

“The high quality of the amber and glass pastes and the engraving of the figures confirm the importance of the domus owner,” Osanna continued. But since none of the objects in this “sorcerer’s treasure trove” was made of gold, a material favored by Pompeii’s elites, they most likely belonged to a servant or a slave rather than the owner of the house, Osanna assessed in an interview with the Italian news agency ANSA.

A glass amulet features a dancing satyr.

Many of the objects symbolize fertility and love. Others, like bird bones, were used in rituals to cast away an “evil eye” or bad luck. Pieces featuring Egyptian Scarab beetles are known to have been used by Romans to protect pregnant women and infants.

“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 a small phallus, or the ear, the closed fist, the skull, the figure of Harpocrates, the scarabs,” Osanna said in his statement.

The objects are now being studied to understand their meaning and function, according to Osanna. The jewels and stones found in the discovery will be eventually displayed, together with other Pompeiian jewels, in an exhibition at the Palestra Grande in Pompeii.

The objects “invoke fortune, fertility, and protection against bad luck.”
The archeologists believe the objects were left behind as inhabitants of Pompiie tried to escape the volcanic eruption that destroyed the city in 79 AD.
Since none of the objects was made of gold, a material favored by Pompeii’s elites, they most likely belonged to a servant or a slave rather than the owner of the house.
“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.”
Many of the objects symbolize fertility and love. Others were used in rituals to cast away an “evil eye” or protect pregnant mother and infants.
The objects are now being studied to understand their meaning and function.
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