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Relief showing celebration of Dionysus, the god of wine

First century A.D.

Herculaneum, southern Italy; February 2009


3 x 1.5 feet


(Courtesy Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei)

Like nearby Pompeii, the seaside town of Herculaneum was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. In recent years, conservation has taken precedence over excavation at the site. So archaeologists were thrilled when they discovered this relief still embedded in the wall during maintenance of a partly excavated luxury residence. "It was very emotional for me when we discovered the relief exactly how it looked 2,000 years ago," recalls excavation director Maria Paola Guidobaldi. "I felt like one of the great archaeologists who uncovered Herculaneum in the past."

Scholars have long wondered how this type of decoration, popular across the Roman world from the first century B.C. onward, was originally installed. Although a similar relief from the same house was excavated in 1997, details of how it was mounted were not recorded, and the wall it came from has been heavily restored, destroying evidence of how it was attached. When archaeologists removed this relief, they found that iron clamps were used to hold it in place and not mortar, as had previously been thought.

The scene has no parallels in ancient Roman art, although Dionysus--he is both the bearded male figure on the right and the small statue on the far left, sculpted in the style of the sixth century B.C.--and a female follower, the dancing maenad, are easily identifiable. It clearly shows a ritual or celebration, but the identity of the two figures at left, and even their genders, are in question. What exactly the relief depicts remains a mystery.