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Five-Star Inn with Great Art Volume 53 Number 4, July/August 2000
by Judith Harris

[image] A conservationist preserves a fresco removed from the walls of an ancient inn for business travelers near Pompeii. A winged Minerva decorates the wall behind her. (David Willey) [LARGER IMAGE]

A highway-widening project a half-mile south of Pompeii inadvertently reopened excavations of an ancient luxury inn for business travelers, preserved by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79, yielding some 15 perfectly preserved frescoed walls in five dining rooms. Archaeologists have also recovered footprints, raising questions about what happened at the inn in the catastrophe's aftermath.

The inn was discovered in 1959 during construction of the first super-highway linking northern and southern Italy. When highway workmen stumbled upon traces of fresco in the area, now known as Murecina, work was halted, and archaeologists moved in. Pressure to finish the road resulted in a cursory study of the site. Water seeping into the inn from an underground stream from the nearby Sarno River also made excavation difficult, and the site was reburied.

Several decorative fresco panels with typical red backgrounds were discovered at the time, along with a businessman's shipping records incised on waxed tablets. These 125 records, detailing Pompeii's import-export trade, were found tucked inside a wicker briefcase, left on a divan in the central room of the inn's five side-by-side dining rooms.

The inn and an adjacent spa complex lay in the path of the prevailing midday winds that carried Vesuvius' thick mantle of ash, burying most of the two-story building, which was reused within a relatively short time; a new floor was built atop the hardened ash layer.

Last year work began on widening the same stretch of highway, now traversed daily by some three million vehicles. The inn's five dining rooms were identically shaped, each containing three painted walls. One of the more ornate rooms included images of a reclining river god holding a cornucopia, a winged Minerva, and an image in miniature of an elegant maritime villa. Tiny water spouts projected at five-inch intervals from the marble tops of the dining room's benches; guests could recline on cushions, eat, then rinse their hands under the spigots.

Archaeologists removed the wall paintings to a museum and reburied the site. "We were working against time and water, and we had to make decisions. We hope they were the right ones," said Salvatore Ciro Nappa, co-director of the excavation.

A particularly sensational new find was a large kitchen with a 12-foot-long counter for food preparation. Stacked in a corner were more than 100 rectangular slabs of white Carrara marble. Archaeologists believe the marble was intended to pave the inn's unfinished bath complex.

Five skeletons were found inside the baths: three young men, a boy, and a young woman. None wore any personal adornments, leading excavators to believe they were servants. Because the baths were incomplete at the time of the eruption, Ciro Nappa believes the victims were at work finishing the interior. A physical anthropologist from Rome University "La Sapienza" is examining the remains.

Footprints of five different people were also found in the hardened ash in the area of the baths. Four were barefoot, while one footprint was of a sandal with nails. Because the ash hardened fairly quickly, excavators presume that people visited the inn (possibly to loot it) between one and four weeks after the eruption.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America