Calling it an "exceptional discovery," researchers at Pompeii have announced the uncovering of an intact ceremonial chariot from a villa near the famous Italian archaeological site.
The announcement Saturday called the chariot "an extraordinary find" that "has no parallel in Italy thus far."
The chariot is preserved in remarkable detail, officials say, with four iron wheels, metal armrests and backrests, and a seat perched atop that could sit one or two people. Notably, the chariot is adorned with metal medallions depicting satyrs, nymphs and cupids, suggesting the possibility that it may have been used in marriage ceremonies.
"I was astounded," said Eric Poehler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has a specialty in traffic in ancient Pompeii. "Many of the vehicles I'd written about before ... are your standard station wagon or vehicle for taking the kids to soccer. This is a Lamborghini. This is an outright fancy, fancy car."
Archaeologists worldwide expressed similar excitement Saturday over the announcement. "Still wrapping my head around the latest incredible discovery," wrote Sophie Hay of the University of Cambridge. "My jaw is on the floor just now!" wrote Jane Draycott of the University of Glasgow. A single exclamation point did not suffice for historian and writer Rubén Montoya, who wrote in Spanish that Pompeii "does not stop giving us surprises!!!"
The ancient city of Pompeii has been the subject of fascination and archaeological digs for hundreds of years. It was buried in volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago, a disaster that preserved in incredible detail the buildings and ephemera of the city and even the shapes of the bodies of the Romans who once walked the city's streets.
According to Italian authorities, the chariot survived the eruption and the intervening years because it was stored inside a portico. The eruption caused the walls and ceiling around it to collapse under the weight of volcanic ash. In recent years, looters had dug tunnels on either side. But "miraculously," officials say, the chariot was spared.
While previous excavations had yielded everyday vehicles used for travel and work, this ceremonial chariot is the first find of its kind to be discovered, explained Massimo Osanna, the outgoing director of the site.
"It is an extraordinary discovery for the advancement of our knowledge of the ancient world," Osanna said in a statement.
Every so often, some new discovery from Pompeii prompts excitement from historians about the glimmer of understanding it reveals about the residents of the ancient world: their fast-food preferences, how their taverns were decorated, their unlucky deaths.
Even among those semi-frequent discoveries, Poehler says, this chariot stands out.
"This is precisely the kind of find that one wants to find at Pompeii, the really well-articulated, very well-preserved moments in time," he said. "And it happens to be in this case an object that is relatively rare despite its ubiquity in the past."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Saturday morning was very exciting for one group of archaeologists.
ERIC POEHLER: I was astounded. I woke up like many people and turned on my phone, and one of the very first things I saw was this story.
SHAPIRO: This is Eric Poehler. He's a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the story he saw was this. Researchers at the archaeological site of Pompeii announced the discovery of a ceremonial chariot that had been buried for almost 2,000 years. Poehler's academic specialty is vehicles and traffic at Pompeii, so you can understand why he was so excited.
POEHLER: How do I describe it? How do I compare it? If many of the vehicles that I've written about before and many of us think about are your standard station wagon or vehicle for taking the kids to soccer, this is a Lamborghini. This is an outright fancy, fancy car.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In other words, most carts, most chariots that they have found at Pompeii are utilitarian, plain. But this one is on a different level, he says. Perched atop four iron wheels is a seat. It could hold one or two people. And most special...
POEHLER: Along the edges and the sides, it's bedecked in plates of bronze that have been embossed and pressed with designs. Some of them are certainly figural. Some of them appear to be erotic as well.
KELLY: The researchers at Pompeii say maybe that means it was used in wedding ceremonies.
POEHLER: Obviously, obviously, I wish I could get on a plane tomorrow and go see it.
SHAPIRO: Poehler says uncovering this fancy, decorative chariot right now is incredible. Among Pompeii history experts, one of the hottest topics is vehicles and infrastructure and how they intersect with society.
POEHLER: It is a perfect embodiment of the kinds of questions that we've been asking, and we probably couldn't have asked for a better example to come out of the ground.
KELLY: Eric Poehler of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Now, he admits he is biased. He has actually, after all, written a book titled "The Traffic Systems Of Pompeii." But he says this one - this one's special.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHWAY STAR")
DEEP PURPLE: (Singing) Ain't nobody gonna take my car. I'm gonna race it to the ground. Nobody gonna beat my car. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.