New Research from the Porta Nola Necropolis Project in Pompeii

This summer the British School at Rome (BSR) began an exciting new international research project at the necropolis of Porta Nola at Pompeii. In partnership with the Ilustre Colegio Oficial de Doctores y Licenciados en Letras y Ciencias de Valencia and the Museo de Prehistoria de Valencia, the project uses a range of new techniques to study the inhabitants of Pompeii, both those buried in the necropolis and those who were caught fleeing the city during the eruption of 79 AD, and whose bodies were conserved as casts during earlier excavations.

In its first season of field work, the Porta Nola Necropolis Project began by investigating a series of different types of funerary monument, each representative of different levels of society.

The most famous tomb of the necropolis is that of M. Obellius Firmus, aedile and joint magistrate during the reign of the Emperor Nero, which was discovered and partially excavated in 1976 during which a funerary stele and a glass cinerary urn were recovered. The monument was now in need of delicate conservation, so together with the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia experts from the conservation department of the Museo de Prehistoria de Valencia have worked to consolidate the plaster and fine decorated stucco on the outside of the tomb. Meanwhile inside the tomb, the new research discovered a second burial, placed in a ceramic cremation urn that was accompanied by grave goods including a coin dating to c. 66–69 AD.


Restoration and consolidation of the plaster and stucco of the tomb of M. Obellius Firmus by specialists from the Conservation Department of the Museum of Valencia.

Another area the field work focused upon this year lies immediately alongside the city walls where in the late 19th century excavations discovered 36 cremation urns. Traditionally these tombs have been interpreted as graves of the ‘poor’.  The 2015 excavations have since revealed a different picture with the discovery of a further two urns and an inhumation burial of a baby, aged between 3 and 6 months. The urns, as well as containing the ashes of the deceased, also contained a coin and funerary goods, usually a small ceramic unguentarium. The project has been able to date these burials through the stratigraphic excavation to the late Republican – Early Imperial period.


Excavation inside the Tomb of Obellio Firmus, following the earlier excavations of the Soprintendenza (1976). The work revealed a second cremation urn, which contains the remains of a male individual in his 60s. Alongside the urn with the burial goods was a coin dating to between 66 – 69 AD.

A further part of the project is the study of the 15 casts made of the victims of the 79 AD eruption discovered in the mid-1970s near the tomb of Obellius Firmus. The analytical study of the casts, supported by the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia (Dott. Stefano Vanacore and Dott.ssa Annalisa Capurso), has allowed the determination of the age, sex, pathologies and activities of the individuals. Furthermore, the anthropological data, together with photogrammetry, x-ray analysis and 3D reconstruction allows the reconstruction of the original positions at the moment of death.


Cast of person trying to escape Pompeii following the eruption of 79 AD being studied by members of the project. Using a range of techniques, including photogrammetry, xrays and 3D scanning, the casts will be fully analysed.

The project has received overwhelming support from the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia at a time when there is a significant amount of attention on the site due to the work of the Grande Progetto Pompei. This project, along with several others, shows the ability of the Soprintendenza to successfully support research alongside the challenges of the conservation of Pompeii.

Stephen Kay (BSR Archaeology Officer)

Images courtesy of Porta Nola Necropolis Project

See below links to relevant articles in the press, and click here for a short introductory video from the project.


Massimo Osanna (Soprintendenza Speciale Beni Archaeologici Pompei Ercolano Stabia) will be speaking more generally about current research at Pompeii at the British School in Rome on Wednesday 14 October 2015 at 18.00. Details here.