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Sexy Roman chariot emerges from Pompeii’s ashes

Italy’s Pompeii archaeological site has yielded up yet another treasure revealing how the good life was lived in ancient Rome: a four-wheeled chariot that was designed for use during sexy ceremonies.

The intact artifact was unearthed over the past month from a field of ash laid down in the year 79 during the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Nearby, excavators previously found the ash-preserved remains of three horses — including one horse that died in its harness.

Massimo Osanna, outgoing director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, suggested that the chariot served a function analogous to modern-day limousines. It’s styled as a type of ceremonial chariot known as a pilentum, and was decorated with bronze and tin medallions depicting men, women and winged Cupids in erotic scenes.

“The scenes on the medallions which embellish the rear of the chariot refer to Eros … while the numerous studs feature Erotes,” Osanna said in a news release. “Considering that the ancient sources allude to the use of the pilentum by priestesses and ladies, one cannot exclude the possibility that this could have been a chariot used for rituals relating to marriage, for leading the bride to her new household.”

Italy’s minister of culture, Dario Francheschini, said the chariot is “an extraordinary discovery for the advancement of our knowledge of the ancient world.”

Francheschini noted that this is the first pilentum-style chariot to emerge from Italian soil, and can be compared to a chariot that was unearthed about 15 years ago inside a Thracian burial mound in northern Greece, near the Bulgarian border.

The chariot’s wooden shaft and platform were destroyed in Pompeii’s hellfire, but their imprint was preserved by carefully pouring plaster into the cavities left behind in the ash. The “micro-excavation” technique even revealed the imprint of the ropes that were attached to the chariot.

This is only the latest reported find in Pompeii, which was destroyed in the Vesuvius eruption and now serves both as a repository of buried artifacts and as an ashen graveyard for the thousands of residents who died in the disaster.

“Pompeii continues to amaze with all of its discoveries, and it will continue to do so for many years, with 20 hectares [50 acres] still to be excavated,” Francheschini said. “But above all, this shows it’s possible to enhance the park and attract tourists from around the world while conducting research, education and studies at the same time.” 

For more about Pompeii’s leftovers and legacies, check out this report about an ancient Roman fast-food joint, and this interview with Annalee Newitz, who includes Pompeii in her book about “Four Lost Cities.” And here are two more close-ups of Pompeii’s sex chariot:

The chariot’s back was decorated with erotic medallions. (Archaeological Park of Pompeii)
A side view of the chariot shows partially buried wheels. (Archaeological Park of Pompeii)

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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