The town of Afragola, buried by Vesuvius 4,000 years ago, offers insight into life in Bronze Age villages

Volcanic eruptions evoke images of lava, fire, and destruction; However it is not always so. The eruption plinian of Vesuvius some 4,000 years ago – 2,000 years before the one that buried the Roman city of Pompeii – left a remarkably intact glimpse of early Bronze Age village life in the Campania region of southern Italy.

The town of Afragola was located near present-day Naples, about 15 kilometers from Mount Vesuvius. After the eruption, the village was engulfed in meters of ash, mud and alluvial sediments, giving it a surprising degree of protection, something rare in archaeological sites of this time in Europe. Due to the level of conservation and the diversity of plants preserved at the site, the researchers were interested in seeing if they could pinpoint the time of year when the eruption occurred.

The Afragola settlement, discovered in 2005, was excavated in an area of ​​5,000 square metres, making it one of the most extensively investigated Early Bronze Age sites in Italy, with a large group of archaeologists carrying out sampling carefully.

The buried town of Afragola is under the Afragola-Naples high-speed station | photo on Wikimedia Commons

The researcher at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut (UConn) Tiziana Matarazzo and the co-authors and archaeologists Monica Stanzione, Giuliana Boenzi and Elena Laforgia from the Soprintendenza of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of the Metropolitan Area of ​​Naples and the Polo Museale Campania have published their most recent findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

The site is exceptional, because Afragola was buried by a gigantic eruption of Vesuvius, and it tells us a lot about the people who lived there and the local habitat. In this case, thanks to the discovery of fruits and agricultural materials, we were able to identify the time of the eruption, something that is usually impossible.says Matarazzo.

Matarazzo explains that the course of the eruption occurred in different phases, starting with a dramatic explosion that sent debris mainly northeastward. This gave the villagers time to flee, so the site does not contain human remains like other places like Pompeii, but it does contain several traces of adults and children fleeing the area. Then, the direction of the wind changed, bringing a copious amount of ash towards Afragola.

The last phase brought mostly ash and water – called the phreatomagmatic phase – dispersed mainly to the west and northwest up to a distance of about 25 kilometers from the volcano.explains Matarazzo. This last phase is also the one that completely buried the town. The thick layer of volcanic material replaced the molecules of the plant macroremains and produced perfect molds in a material called cinerite.and these conditions made the materials resistant to degradation, even after several millennia.

The leaves that were in the nearby woods were also covered in mud and ash that was not super hot, so we have beautiful impressions of the leaves in the cinerite.He says.

The town offers a rare glimpse into how people lived in Italy in the Early Bronze Age, the researchers say. In Campania, at this time, we have cabins, but in Greece they had palacessays Matarazzo. These people probably lived in groups, in which perhaps one or more people were the leaders of the group..

There was also a storage building in the village where all the grains and various agricultural products and fruits from the nearby forests were collected to be stored and probably shared with the whole community.

Fortunately for this study, unlike the other huts in the village, the plant food store probably caught fire due to the arrival of pyroclastic materials. Its collapse made possible the indirect carbonization of stored plant materials.

Matarazzo claims that the Bronze Age Campanian Plain supported a rich diversity of food sources, including a variety of cereals and barley, hazelnuts, acorns, crabapples, dogwood, pomegranates, and cornelian cherry, all remarkably well preserved after the eruption. volcanic.

Herb prints (Gramineae Juss) on cinerite | photo University of Connecticut

Evidence suggests that the eruption occurred in the autumn, when villagers accumulated their food reserves in the nearby forests. Matarazzo explains that the traces of the leaves found at the base of the trees together with the ripe fruits are highly indicative of seasonality.

Between climate change and development, Matarazzo explains that the area looks very different than it did before. The reason we found the place is the construction of a high speed train line.

For now, the researchers can refer to materials recovered at the site, which are now located offsite in a warehouse. Future research will focus on a more detailed examination of the bones of animals found at the site, such as cattle, goats, pigs and fish, as well as foot prints, Matarazzo says.

This eruption was so extraordinary that it changed the climate for many years afterward. The Plinian eruption column rose to basically the height of aircraft flight. It was incredible. The ash cover was so deep that it left the site untouched for 4,000 years; no one knew it was there. Now we can meet the people who lived there and tell their stories.


University of Connecticut | Monica Stanzione, Giuliana Boenzi, Elena Laforgia, Tiziana Matarazzo, Preliminary archaeobotanical evidence from Early Bronze Age Afragola reveals the season of the Plinian eruption of the Pomici di Avellino (Southern Italy)Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 2022,