2005 Vicolo delle Nozze d’Argento
Excavation in Vicolo delle Nozze d’Argento

Pottery and small finds are presented on a separate page.

The partial emptying of a pumice-filled well in room f of Caupona V 1,13 in 2004 revealed prehistoric pottery of the Early Bronze Age Palma Campania culture and volcanic ash in layers under the building (Nilsson & Robinson 2005). Since Vicolo delle Nozze d’Argento passes very close to the find spot, the street was chosen as the best location for further investigations of prehistoric material. It was, in addition, an opportunity to study the street itself.

Excavation of the AD 79 street
The whole street was first cleaned from soil for proper documentation. The next step was to excavate the joints between the paving-stones in the area laid out for the trench. The finds were few, but included fragments of iron nails - probably from the carts and wheels that rolled along the street - one bone object and a small piece of glass plaque with palmette pattern.

Excavation under the AD 79 street
The paving-stones were temporarily removed with the help of a Bobcat before excavation could continue. There were no finds under the paving except for numerous stone fragments, suggesting that the paving-stones were partly worked on site when the street was constructed. The bedding of sterile, weathered volcanic soil was 0.40m thick and rested on an older street level.

Pumice from the AD 79 eruption flowed out from a small area in the northern scarp of the trench, implying that a cesspit was situated here. Since the pumice would obstruct excavation work, the area was avoided from now on and the northern line of the trench turned undulating. In the SE corner of the trench another cesspit was encountered, but it was filled to the top with Roman debris and since it did not interfere with work, it was excavated separately. In the debris were plaster fragments of the First and Second Style periods, small bones and pottery, of which at least three body sherds were of prehistoric date since the cesspit cut through the prehistoric layers. It also cut through the older street and is therefore a later feature. Looking at the stone paving of the street, the area above this cesspit had been disarranged at some point in antiquity: two stones were standing on edge and a couple of stones seem to be missing. This would suggest that the cesspit had been, or was about to be, emptied and the street was never restored to its former condition.

Old street
The older street level was not paved with stones and in between the wheel-ruts nothing but sterile soil was encountered, meaning that the ground level of this phase must have been evened out for the paving and bedding of the new street. The wheel-ruts, however, consisted of a mix of consolidated soil, sand, mortar, small pieces of lava-stone and pottery. Heavy cart traffic probably necessitated the occasional refilling of the ruts for the traffic to run smoothly. This filling is at its deepest 0.24m thick. The wheel-ruts also contained a few small finds: four nondescript bronze coins, part of a bone pin, plaster fragments dating to the First Style period (identification by C. Pettersson), and, again, iron nails.

Excavation under the old street
Frequent rains obstructed the excavation and rendered photographic documentation difficult. In between the wheel-ruts were dark patches in the soil from organic remains, in all likelihood wood. The dark soil was loose and grainy in texture. In the centre of the trench was the largest of these patches, a round feature with the diameter of 0.17m, which continued down through the Early Bronze Age layers and beyond. To the northeast of it were three shallow and smaller features of which one was round and two were rectangular in shape, appearing like wooden battens in section. It would be difficult to explain the presence of vertical wooden features in the middle of a street. The wheel-ruts, however, have cut down into earlier layers and one has to make the assumption that the wooden features belong to an earlier phase. No other findings were encountered below the old street, except for the small intrusions made by ancient rodents’ burrows running into virgin soil from the southern sidewalk and the SE cesspit. The soil was completely lacking in man-made finds down to a depth of c. 0.70-0.75m and consisted of unbedded greenish-grey volcanic ash (gritty sandy loam) with grey pumice up to 5mm in diameter (analysis by M. Robinson). Some differentiation in the various phases of soil deposition can be discerned in the stratigraphy.

The uppermost prehistoric layers
Below the thick stratum of virgin soil, which would never have been investigated if the well in V 1,13f had not yielded finds, the prehistoric layers were encountered, as expected. There were several strata with numerous finds and in between a grey, hard layer of volcanic ash. "The uppermost prehistoric layers" are the ones above the ash and they constituted three layers, each with distinct characteristics but without clear boundaries, that all together ranged between 0.13 and 0.24m in thickness (thicker to the south).
1. In the first, uppermost layer, the soil was dark brown and speckled with small dots of charcoal. More than 500 pottery sherds were collected, of which most were small and appeared to originate from separate vessels. The finds also included bones and three miniscule lumps of bronze.
2. In the second layer, the soil is mottled in colour and contains larger pieces of pottery, bones and charcoal. Some pottery fragments belong to the same vessels. This was the first encounter with molluscs, but only in the form of a single land snail.
3. The third layer has an even greater variety of colours with some lumps of bright orange soil. This is the soil that rests directly on the volcanic ash layer. The pottery is still numerous and includes some large pieces of the same vessels. Bones and, for the first time, sea shells were collected.
Characteristic for the prehistoric finds, whether pottery, shells or even stones, is that they have been severly affected by the properties of the soil. It would seem that the volcanic origin of much of the soil has given it an acidity that slowly dissolves certain materials, especially calcium. (Once removed, most finds harden and become durable enough for storage, but some were so delicate at their recovery that they could not be saved.) In the third layer, however, scattered stones of even more brittle quality turned up in the SW corner. After removal, part of a built feature of stones and pottery appeared in the SW corner and the condition of the material suggests that the stones had been exposed to heat and that the feature was a built hearth.

The volcanic ash layer
The hard, grey layer of tuff is the consolidated ash from a volcanic eruption. The pottery below and above the ash was identified as belonging to the Early Bronze Age Palma Campania culture. It was therefore natural to assume that the eruption in question was the so-called Avellino eruption of Vesuvius which is dated to the end of the Early Bronze Age. This assumption, however, was challenged by Mark Robinson who by tephra analysis has identified Campi Phlegrei as the source of the ash (Robinson 2008).
The layer is on average 0.13m thick and its surface is very uneven, probably from the post-eruption activity of e.g. small animals and weather conditions. There are several holes going through the hard layer and these could either be signs of pre-eruption vegetation or post-eruption animal burrows and root systems.

The lowest prehistoric layers
Below the ash was another sequence of three consecutive layers with indistinct boundaries and their joint thickness ranges from 0.31 to 0.77m. Whereas all layers above have followed the modern downward inclination towards the south, the layers below the ash slope steeply towards the west. The cause for this geological change may lie in the seismic events at the time of the Early Bronze Age eruption.
1. The uppermost of the earliest prehistoric layers is dark brown and loose in texture. More than 700 pottery sherds were collected, but most of them were very small and, in addition, very brittle, either from exposure to the deposited acidic volcanic ash or from the heat of the eruption. The finds also included bones, sea shells, charcoal and two small lumps of bronze.
2. The second layer is more yellow in colour and contains small, white pumice and plenty of charcoal. There are root patterns in the soil that appear to consist of ash and patches where charred matter has bled the soil to a dark brown. More than 800 pottery sherds were collected and, although many were small, they were in better condition than the ones above. Among the finds were also bones, sea shells, charcoal, four tiny pieces of bronze, including a rivet, and a beautifully worked chert arrow-head.
3. When soil again turned dark brown, it was documented as a separate layer. There did, however, turn up a distinct, broad N-S band of yellowish grey matter, perhaps clay. Again, more than 800 pottery sherds were collected. The difference was that more of the pieces clearly belonged to the same vessels. Parts of red and black carinated cups were put together from a number of fragments. Among the other finds were bones, sea shells, charcoal, three small pieces of bronze of which one is a rivet, and one chert blade, already out of use and worn smooth in water at the time of the deposition.
When excavation was terminated, i.e. when pottery and small finds were no longer present, the soil was a dark reddish brown with small white pumice. Three features were visible at the bottom of the trench before it was filled in and the street was restored: the cesspit of the SE corner, an animal burrow in the southern scarp and the enigmatic round, dark patch in the middle of the trench.

It is unfortunate that recurrent rains delayed work and obstructed documentation during this pioneering Pompeian investigation. Yet, the results of the excavation in Vicolo delle Nozze d’Argento far exceeded our expectations. On little more than two square metres literally thousands of finds were collected - the total number of prehistoric pottery sherds exceeded 3,500 and their combined weight was close to 20 kg. The prehistoric animals identified by C. Liebe-Harkort among the collected bones include cattle, sheep/goat, pig, rodent, bird and pig while M. Robinson has identified barley grain, glumes and grain of emmer wheat and possibly the glumes of spelt wheat from the carbonized plant material. There were many other types of finds collected during the course of the excavation, including lumps of clay, stones and numerous soil samples. These may appear insignificant, but add information to our theories that the site was a permanent settlement and that it was, at least before the Early Bronze Age seismic event, next to either the sea shore or a river. It is evident that the inhabitants survived the volcanic ash fall and that they used the site without clearing the ground from ashes, but the toxic properties of volcanic emissions may still have caused their delayed demise or voluntary abandonment of the settlement. After the abandonment at the end of the Early Bronze Age there is a long hiatus in the visible activities of humans. The next event that can be demonstrated is the use of the street and the filling up of the wheel-ruts with material that includes plaster fragments of the First Style period.

Monica Nilsson


H. Boman & M. Nilsson, ’The early street and the prehistoric finds in Vicolo delle Nozze d’Argento, Pompeii’, OpRom 31-32, 2006-2007, 161-165.

M. Nilsson, ’Evidence of Palma Campania settlement at Pompeii’, Nuove ricerche archeologiche nell’area vesuviana (scavi 2003-2006) Atti del convegno inter-nazionale, Roma 1-3 febbraio 2007, (eds.) P.G. Guzzo & M.P. Guidobaldi, Rome 2008, 81-86.

M. Nilsson, ’The first of a series of disasters? Pompeii and the aftermath of an Early Bronze Age eruption’, Beyond determinism? Engagement and response in human-environment interactions (Archaeological Review from Cambridge, 24.2), (eds.) R.H. Inglis & A.J.E. Pryor, Cambridge 2009, 81-98.

M. Nilsson & M. Robinson, ’Remains of prehistoric habitation beneath Pompeii V 1,13’, OpRom 30, 2005, 97-103.

M. Robinson, ’La stratigrafia nello studio dell’archeologia preistorica e proistorica Pompei’, Nuove ricerche archeologiche nell’area vesuviana (scavi 2003-2006) Atti del convegno internazionale, Roma 1-3 febbraio 2007, (eds.) P.G. Guzzo & M.P. Guidobaldi, Rome 2008, 125-138.

The location.

The vicolo after cleaning 2005.

Photo/drawing: Hans Thorwid
Trench, view W.

Photo/drawing: Hans Thorwid
Trench, view E.

Photo/drawing: Hans Thorwid
Removal of street paving.

Photo/drawing: Henrik Boman
Top of the street bedding.

Photo/drawing: Henrik Boman
Section of street paving.

Photo/drawing: Henrik Boman
The cesspit in the SE corner of the trench.

Photo/drawing: Henrik Boman
To the right is the clear outline of the hard packing in one wheel-rut of the old street.

Photo/drawing: Henrik Boman
Organic discolorations.

Photo/drawing: Henrik Boman
Stratigraphy to the east when prehistoric finds were encoun-tered. Cesspit to the right.

Photo/drawing: Henrik Boman
Top of volcanic ash layer. The probable hearth in the top left corner.

Photo/drawing: M. Nilsson
2005 Vicolo delle Nozze

2005 Vicolo delle Nozze
    d'Argento: finds

2006 V 1,14-16 atrium
2006 V 1,23 d'
2006 V 1,23 q