Archaeologists excavating parts of the ancient city of Pompeii made public new discoveries on Friday that provide a grim glimpse into the bleak existence of enslaved people two millenniums ago, including the existence of a “bakery-prison.”
The newly excavated area consists of a cramped space where donkeys and enslaved people lived, slept and worked together, milling flour to make bread. The single window that was found there provided dim light: it opened not to the outside world but to another room in the house, and was crossed with iron bars.
The brutality of the working conditions in the mills of the time is graphically described in Book XI of “The Golden Ass” by the second-century author Apuleius, the archaeological site noted in a statement issued Friday.
With their feet chained, and dressed in rags, Apuleius describes the workers as having “eyes so bleary from the scorching heat of that smoke-filled darkness they could barely see, and like wrestlers sprinkled with dust before a fight, they were coarsely whitened with floury ash.”
The donkeys were no better off: “Their flanks were cut to the bone from relentless whipping, their hoofs distorted to strange dimensions from the repetitive circling, and their whole hide blotched by mange and hollowed by starvation.”
Buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. under tons of lapilli, ash and rock, which would help to preserve it, Pompeii has over the centuries become a powerful symbol of the transience of life, and human impotence, when nature unleashes its power.
Since excavations began in the 18th century, Pompeii has continued to provide precious insights into the lives and habits of its ancient denizens.
The iron bars on the window of the bakery were designed to prevent the enslaved workers from fleeing, Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, said in a telephone interview.
The constricted work space had at least four tightly packed millstones. The floor around them is marked by a series of semicircular indentations of varying depth, to prevent the animals from sliding on the pavement, but also to “keep them in a kind a choreography,” Mr. Zuchtriegel said.
“The space was so small that two donkeys could not pass at the same time, so they always had to be careful to keep in some kind of synchrony with the others, and this evidently helped” them moved through the tiny space, he added.
Under Mr. Zuchtriegel’s watch, visitors have been offered a more complex, interdisciplinary reading of the ancient city, as recent research has focused on the complex stratification of Pompeii’s society, including the lowest classes, which included the majority of its citizens.
The discoveries in the Pompeii bakery offered “a very harsh and grim image” of life there, Mr. Zuchtriegel said.
The bakery emerged during the excavation of a larger dwelling that has already provided some surprises, including a fresco that appears to show a doughy concoction that looks remarkably like a pizza. The bakery is behind the wall with the fresco.
In another room — which contained the lararium, or household shrine — excavation earlier this year uncovered a series of political inscriptions, the ancient equivalent of today’s electoral manifestoes and posters. The inscriptions invite people to vote for Aulus Rustius Verus, a candidate for the position of aedile, an elected official during the Roman Republic. Mr. Zuchtriegel said the dwelling likely belonged to a supporter of the candidate, possibly one of his freedmen.
For researchers, the discovery of political slogans inside the house was a first for Pompeii, Chiara Scappaticcio, professor of Latin at the University in Naples Federico II, said, and it suggested the possible collusion between elected officials and the owners of bakeries.
The current excavation campaign aims to secure and consolidate the slopes along one edge of the unexcavated areas of the ancient city.
The excavations suggest that the house was amid a renovation when the eruption of Mount Vesuvius took place, and that the bakery was likely not in service at the time.