Pompeii and the Coins That Survived Vesuvius


“The coins archaeologists find,” writes Emma Watts-Plumpkin in the March 2004 edition of World Archaeology, “are those that have been lost or purposely hoarded away. The Pompeii collection is quite different from coins found elsewhere.” Pompeii has fascinated the world since it was uncovered in the late 1700s, and the coins found in the ruins are no exception.


The story of Pompeii and its sister city, Herculaneum, are known. In August of 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius exploded violently (as it had done before, wiping out a much earlier Roman settlement), burying both cities in ash, pumice, and lava. While many inhabitants escaped, those who waited too long were trapped in the cities. In many cases, the bodies were covered in fine ash, producing the famous molds which reveal extraordinary details of the victims.




Many inhabitants tried to take their valuables with them. Wealthy families and individuals have been found with jewelry, statues, bags of coins, and more. Even the underclasses and slaves took the coins they had, usually bronzes and coppers. A fused mass of coins was found at the edge of the ancient beach in Herculaneum; many residents fled there in hopes of boarding boats to escape, but were incinerated when the first of many pyroclastic flows (12 surges in total, by the time the eruption calmed) raced down the mountain. Over the course of hours, 75 feet of rock and ash covered the city, freezing it in time.


800px-View_of_vesuvius_over_the_ruins_of_pompeiiAfter the eruption, some residents did return to try to salvage what they could. Emperor Titus declared Pompeii an “emergency zone,” and even sent funds for rebuilding. But too much had been buried, and within a few decades, both towns were gone from local maps. Statius, a Roman poet, wrote “When this wasteland regains its green, will men believe that cities and peoples lie beneath?” A few centuries later, new farms and vineyards had been planted in the fertile volcanic soil over the city.


In 2016, four skeletons were found in the ruins of a shop near Pompeii’s Herculaneum gate. While the site had been looted, several gold coins were recovered. It’s likely that other coins were initially present, and were taken by the looters who tunneled in.


Approximately 1500 coins have been recovered from an insula (a Roman city block) by a research team from the University of Bradford. The insula contained two large houses, as well as shops and even bars. The coins studied by the Bradford team are unusual in that they show coins in circulation up to the moment of catastrophe, not buried with the dead, hidden in a hoard, or otherwise intentionally collected. As such, most of them show extensive wear, as they were in circulation up until the very moment of disaster.


mapThe Pompeii copper coins show a strong local economy, as the coins are mostly crude copies of Massalian (modern day Marseille) and Ebusian (modern day Ibiza) coins. Very few of the coins come from Rome itself, though a few early Imperial Quadrantes have been found, with more expected to appear as the mass of coins is separated. The pseudo-coins, as they are known, seem to have been locally made and circulated mostly around the Naples Bay area. No coin-minting equipment has yet been found in Pompeii or Herculaneum, but such a find may turn up in future excavations, or simply have been damaged beyond recognition. Watts-Plumpkin writes, “In all likelihood, these ‘pseudo’ coins were just for use in the local economy. The fact that so many have been found bears out the degree to which the people of Pompeii were involved in local trading. The large numbers of local coins also suggests that the Pompeiians may have been using a largely monetised economy rather than other forms of barter. That far fewer coins come from further afield, for example actually from Ibiza or Marseilles, suggests that the people of Pompeii were not engaged in very much monetised longer-distant trade.”


At last date, about 500 of the 1500 coins separated have been identified. The most common is the pseudo-Ebusus design, with a crude image of the Egyptian dwarf god Bes on both sides. These coins are 12-16mm across. Another 45 copper-alloy coins bear the image of Janus, the two-faced Roman god. The reverse of the coin shows the prow of a ship. Some of these coins bear the word “ROMA,” and were made during the Republic. Many of these are found halved, as cutting coins has been an efficient way to make change when softer metals are used.




About 55 of the coins are Massalian in style, though only a few actually come from Massalia itself. Most are the local copies, with a bust of Apollo on the obverse and a bull on the reverse. The best date for these coins is the first century BC; they were in circulation as long as the coin weighed enough to be legal tender.
As evidenced by its coins, gathered up as treasures in the hands of those fleeing the city or left behind in scattered masses, Pompeii was a busy town, much like any other. But its coins still tell the story of daily life in the obliterated city, and there is still so much more to learn.


[Featured image credit of The British Museum, used under fair use.]

Traveling with Art: Mount Vesuvius and Naples, Italy

The legendary Mount Vesuvius sits nearby Naples, Italy, and has inspired both horror and awe in its nearby residents.

The painting you see above shows a Southeastern view of Naples, with the Vesuvius volcano in the background behind the Tyrrhenian gulf.

In the mythology of the labors of Hercules, Hercules finds a place called “the Phlegraean Plain” or “plain of fire” “from a hill which anciently vomited out fire … now called Vesuvius.” Historians suggest that Hercules may have been considered a patron of the volcano.

Someone's having a bad day

An 1872 eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Despite the cheeriness of the painting, Mount Vesuvius is the volcano famous for its eruption in 79 AD that buried and destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in layers of ash. Since then, it has erupted 50 more times.

The city Herculaneum was buried in 75 feet of ash!

Pliny the Younger provided a valuable first person witness of the 79 AD eruption. Twenty-five years after the eruption, he wrote an account to his friend describing Pliny the Elder, his uncle’s, death through the burying of Pompeii. Pliny the Elder commanded a fleet of warships and attempted to use the ships to save the people on the shores of Pompeii. But his attempt was unsuccessful, as Pliny the Younger describes:

“. . . the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up . . . then [he] suddenly collapsed . . . his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.”

At the time, Pliny the Younger was 18 miles away and fled with his mother as far away as possible from the eruption.


A modern view of the sunset over Mount Vesuvius and Naples.

Vesuvius had erupted before 79 AD, about every century until 1037 AD, when it quieted for 600 years. But it woke up once again in 1631 and, since the area had grown around the sleeping mountain, killed about four thousand people.

How’s that for some cheerful history?

Today, the city of Naples, Italy looks out on its beautiful gulf. The city has issues with homelessness and keeping clean, but inhabitants will tell you that it’s like no other city in Italy in its environment and culture. Naples does not have a huge influx of tourists, thereby allowing visitors to really get to know the place by admiring the beautiful gulf of Naples and exploring its many pizzerias. 745px-Partenope_Street_Naples_Italy

Naples has a special population, too. Many stray dogs live there, but they are better cared for than any stray dogs you’ll find elsewhere. The tour guides to the ruins of Pompeii regularly pool together money to feed the dogs. And the dogs have reportedly fine-tuned their begging performance to tourists in restaurants. Visitors report that the dogs seem happy and friendly, and that they have become a part of the city’s culture.

Naples truly has an aura unlike any other city in Italy, and with Mount Vesuvius looking down on the city, it’s an unforgettable place.


Pliny the Younger’s account

Naples tourism

The Wiki

A Brief History of the Cameo

The cameo is one of the most popular pieces of jewelry in history. But what exactly is a cameo, and how did it come to be so popular?

The history of the cameo goes way back. Cameos owe their origins to petroglyphs, figures carved into rock that recorded events and gave information as far back as 15,000 BC.

An example of an intaglio piece, showing Neptune and Amphitrite riding a sea horse.

An example of an intaglio piece, showing Neptune and Amphitrite riding a sea horse.

The intaglio, the reverse of a cameo in which the piece is carved below the surface, actually came before the cameo, when the intaglio was used in ancient times to seal papers or mark property.

There are disagreements on when the first cameo was made, however. Research suggests dates anywhere from six BC to 300 BC.

No matter what the right date, experts agree that the first cameos were made in Alexandria, Egypt, where people used them to convey a moral or declare a statement of faith or loyalty. Some of the earliest cameos were made of hard stones like agate and sardonyx (a stone like onyx, but with shades of red instead of black) before the use of more modern materials like gems, coral, and shells. People in cultures outside of Egypt soon came to love the cameo, too.

Contrary to what modern readers might expect, women were not the original cameo wearers and only started wearing them as a symbol of status during the Elizabethan era (1558-1603). This is also when the ruins of Pompeii rose in tourism and status-conscious women bought souvenir shell and lava cameos as evidence for their trip.

A charming cameo ring.

A charming cameo ring.

A cherub band playing accordions and a flapper wearing eyeglasses, smoking a cigarette, and holding a liquor bottle are just two rare cameo styles that have sold for huge amounts in auction.

Many famous figures popularized the cameo in their time. Napoleon himself wore a cameo to his wedding and created a Paris school to teach the art of cameo carving. Thomas Jefferson’s dining room fireplace mantel was inset with Josiah Wedgewood cameo plaques. Catherine the Great ordered all of glass maker John Tassie’s less expensive cameo models in triplicate. Queen Victoria not only created a greater wave of cameo popularity but also popularized the cameo with the woman’s profile carved in sea shell, creating the theme we’re most familiar with today. When she went into mourning after Prince Albert’s death, she wore black cameos until she died.

In the mid-Victorian period, cameo habilles came into being. These habilles featured carved women wearing their own tiny Caraglio_Cameo_of_Barbara_Radziwiłłdiamonds on necklaces, earrings or brooches, adding significant value to the pieces. This style gained popularity and can still be found in production today.

Today mass production means more easy access to cameos now that a modern carving machine makes them ultrasonically.

However, as you can guess, there is an easy-to-see difference between machine-made cameos and those made by hand. Today, only a select number of tradesmen specialize in cameo carving. The craft takes years of dedication to perfect.