2,000 years before Pompeii, an Early Bronze Age village was almost perfectly preserved— then hidden for centuries—after Mount Vesuvius erupted one autumn day.
Uncovered during the construction of a high-speed railway near Naples, Afragola offers a rare glimpse into life in the Campania region during harvest time.
Like Pompeii, Afragola was encased in many feet of ash, mud, and silt, which preserved the site so well that archaeologists could identify the season in which the disaster occurred from the remains of a food storage area.
Covering an area over 1.2 acres (5,000 square meters), the site also features well-preserved footprints of fleeing adults and children.
“The site is exceptional, because Afragola was buried by a gigantic eruption of Vesuvius and it tells us a lot about the people who lived there, and the local habitat,” said Dr. Tiziana Matarazzo of the University of Connecticut.
“In this case, by finding fruits and agricultural materials, we were able to identify the season of the eruption, which is usually impossible.”
The course of the eruption happened in various phases, starting with a massive explosion that sent debris away from the village, to the northeast.
This gave the villagers a chance to escape, which is why preserved footprints were discovered, and not bodies as at Pompeii, before the wind changed and ash and sea water blew over the village—mainly dispersed to the west and northwest up to a distance of about 15 miles (25km) from the volcano.
“This last phase is also what completely buried the village. The thick layer of volcanic material replaced the molecules of the vegetal macro-remains and produced perfect casts in a material called cinerite.”
These conditions meant the materials were resistant to degradation, even after several millennia.
“Leaves that were in the woods nearby were also covered by mud and ash which was not super-hot, so we have beautiful imprints of the leaves,” added Dr. Matarazzo.
The village offers a rare glimpse at how people lived in Italy in the Early Bronze Age, according to the researchers, who published their most recent findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
“In Campania at this time, we have huts, but in Greece, they had palaces. These people probably lived in groups with maybe one or more persons as the head of the group.”
There was also one storage building in the village where all the grains and various agricultural goods and fruits were gathered from nearby woods to be stored and likely shared with the whole community.
Unlike the other huts in the village, the plant food warehouse caught fire, probably from a pyroclastic flow. It collapsed and carbonized the stored vegetables inside, which the villagers had amassed from the nearby woods, preserving the remains for thousands of years.
Imprints of leaves found at the base of trees and ripe fruit also point towards the harvest season.
Matarazzo said the Bronze Age Campanian Plain was home to a rich diversity of food sources, including a variety of grains and barley, hazelnuts, acorns, wild apples, dogwood, pomegranates, and cornelian cherry, all extraordinarily well-preserved in the aftermath of the volcanic eruption.
Author of a recent book about the remarkable preservation, Matarazzo says that future research will focus on animal bones found on site, including goats, pigs and fish, as well as footprints.
“The column of the Plinian eruption rose to basically the flight altitude of airplanes. It was unbelievable. This eruption was so extraordinary that it changed the climate for many years afterward.”
“The cover of ash was so deep that it left the site untouched for 4,000 years — no one even knew it was there. Now we get to learn about the people who lived there and tell their stories.”
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