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Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, Getty Images
Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, Getty Images

Archaeologists Uncover 'Little Pompeii' Buried Beneath Ash in France

Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, Getty Images
Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, Getty Images

Newly uncovered ruins in France are drawing comparisons to one of the most famous archaeological sites of all time. Like Pompeii, the ancient Roman neighborhood discovered beneath the town of Vienne has been preserved beneath a layer of ash for nearly 2000 years, The Guardian reports.

Ground had just been broken on a 75,000-square-foot housing complex in Vienne, which is south of Lyon, when the discovery was made. After excavating the site, archaeologists saw it contained the remains of an entire district of a Roman village last inhabited during the 1st century CE. A series of fires appears to have swept through the town, driving out residents and destroying buildings. Whatever structures and objects survived the initial blaze were entombed in a protective coating of ash until they were brought to light earlier this year.

Archaeologist excavating ruins in Vienne, France.
Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, Getty Images

Among the debris, archaeologists came across the ruins of a home they believe once belonged to a wealthy merchant. The roof, balcony, and first floor have all crumbled away, but a tiled floor illustrated with mythological characters remains. Another mosaic they unearthed depicts Thalia, the muse of comedy, being kidnapped by Pan, the god of satyrs. In a different part of the site, a public building (possibly a school of philosophy) houses a fountain complete with a statue of Hercules. 

Archaeologist excavating ruins in Vienne, France.
Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, Getty Images

When it was overtaken by Rome in 47 BCE, Vienne became a communication center for the empire. Many impressive structures, including an 11,000-seat theater, are left over from the era, but the discovery of "little Pompeii" is in a category all its own. Lead archaeologist on the dig Benjamin Clement told The Guardian that it's "the most exceptional excavation of a Roman site in 40 or 50 years."

Archaeologists have been excavating the site since April and will have until the end of the year to recover the rest of the relics. Many of the pieces that have already been collected will be restored with plans to display them in Vienne's museum of Gallo-Roman civilization in 2019.

Archaeologist excavating ruins in Vienne, France.
Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, Getty Images

[h/t The Guardian]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Buckingham Palace Was Built With Jurassic Fossils, Scientists Find
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iStock

The UK's Buckingham Palace is a vestige from another era, and not just because it was built in the early 18th century. According to a new study, the limestone used to construct it is filled with the fossilized remains of microbes from the Jurassic period of 200 million years ago, as The Telegraph reports.

The palace is made of oolitic limestone, which consists of individual balls of carbonate sediment called ooids. The material is strong but lightweight, and is found worldwide. Jurassic oolite has been used to construct numerous famous buildings, from those in the British city of Bath to the Empire State Building and the Pentagon.

A new study from Australian National University published in Scientific Reports found that the spherical ooids in Buckingham Palace's walls are made up of layers and layers of mineralized microbes. Inspired by a mathematical model from the 1970s for predicting the growth of brain tumors, the researchers created a model that explains how ooids are created and predicts the factors that limit their ultimate size.

A hand holding a chunk of oolite limestone
Australian National University

They found that the mineralization of the microbes forms the central core of the ooid, and the layers of sediment that gather around that core feed those microbes until the nutrients can no longer reach the core from the outermost layer.

This contrasts with previous research on how ooids form, which hypothesized that they are the result of sediment gathered from rolling on the ocean floor. It also reshapes how we think about the buildings made out of oolitic limestone from this period. Next time you look up at the Empire State Building or Buckingham Palace, thank the ancient microbes.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Inside the Kitchen of Thomas Jefferson's Acclaimed—and Enslaved—Chef James Hemings
 ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

James Hemings once prepared lavish dishes for America's founding fathers at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia plantation. Though enslaved, he trained in France to become one of colonial America's most accomplished chefs. Now, archaeologists have uncovered the kitchen where Hemings created his elaborate banquets, LiveScience reports.

Researchers at Monticello are conducting a long-term effort, the Mountaintop Project, to restore plantation premises, including slave quarters, to their original appearance. Archaeologists excavated a previously filled-in cellar in the main house's South Pavilion, where they found artifacts like bones, toothbrushes, beads, and shards of glass and ceramics. Underneath layers of dirt, experts also uncovered the kitchen's original brick floor, remnants of a fireplace, and the foundations of four waist-high stew stoves.

"Stew stoves are the historic equivalent of a modern-day stovetop or cooking range," archaeological field researcher manager Crystal Ptacek explains in an online video chronicling the find. Each contained a small hole for hot coals; centuries later, the cellar floor still contains remains of ash and charcoal from blazing fires. Hemings himself would have toiled over these stoves.

During the colonial period, wealthy families had their slaves prepare large, labor-intensive meals. These multi-course feasts required stew stoves for boiling, roasting, and frying. Archaeologists think that Jefferson might have upgraded his kitchen after returning from Paris: Stew stoves were a rarity in North America, but de rigueur for making haute French cuisine.

Hemings traveled with Jefferson to France in the 1780s, where for five years he was trained in the French culinary arts. There, Hemings realized he was technically a free man. He met free black people and also learned he could sue for his freedom under French law, according to NPR.

And yet he returned to the U.S. to cook for Jefferson's family and guests, perhaps because he didn't want to be separated from his family members at Monticello, including his sister, Sally. He later negotiated his freedom from Jefferson and trained his brother Peter as his replacement. Hemings ended up cooking for a tavern keeper in Baltimore, and in 1801, shortly after turning down an offer from now-president Jefferson to be his personal chef, he died by suicide.

"We're thinking that James Hemings must have had ideals and aspirations about his life that could not be realized in his time and place," Susan Stein, senior curator at Monticello, told NPR in 2015. "And those factors probably contributed to his unhappiness and his depression, and ultimately to his death."

Hemings contributed to early America's culinary landscape through dessert recipes like snow eggs and by introducing colonial diners to macaroni and cheese, among other dishes. He also assisted today's historians by completing a 1796 inventory of Monticello's kitchen supplies—and he's probably left further clues in the estate's newly uncovered kitchen, says Gayle Jessup White, Monticello's community engagement officer—and one of James's relatives.

"My great-great-great-grandfather Peter Hemings learned to cook French cuisine from his brother James on this stove," White tells Mental Floss. "It was a spiritual moment for me to walk into the uncovered remains of Monticello's first kitchen, where my ancestors spent much of their lives. This discovery breathes life into the people who lived, worked and died at Monticello, and I hope people connect with their stories."

[h/t Live Science]

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