One of the most well-preserved villas of Ancient Rome, which was buried under layers of ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, has reopened to the public after 35 years. And this time its treasures are more sublime than before.
On Wednesday, Italy's culture minister reopened Casa del Bicentenario (House of the Bicentenary) to the public for the first time since it closed 35 years ago. Located in the sprawling, open-air archaeological site of Herculaneum, beside Pompeii, the house underwent years of painstaking conservation as archaeologists worked to secure the building's structure and preserve the ancient artworks and artefacts inside.
Buried by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the house lay largely undisturbed under layers of hardened volcanic material for about 2000 years. It was first excavated in 1938 but then closed to the public in 1983 after falling into disrepair. Now the huge, three-storey house, or domus rather, is set to become one of the most exciting new tourist draws in the region.
Decorated with mosaic floors and walls of frescoes depicting Dionysian Mysteries, mythological themes and, in one room, explicitly erotic scenes, it's considered to be one of the most lavish and well preserved Roman villas around. Among the interior frescoes is one that archaeologists believe to be the earliest depiction of Vesuvius. The house is also adorned with a cross which may be the oldest relic testifying to Christianity in the Roman Empire, though it's yet to be proven.
Despite the careful excavations, the identity of the owner isn't entirely clear. Some argue that it was the home of a local politician, while others believe it was the home of the writer Gaius Petronius Stephanus and his wife Calantonia Themis.
Herculaneum was a resort for wealthy Romans before it was destroyed (and immortalised) by the Vesuvius eruption. Merchants and landowners often had second homes here so there are similar lavish residences in the site. Most of its residents were believed to have fled before Mount Vesuvius erupted but in the 1980s, 400 well-preserved skeletons were found in the rubble of beachside boat houses, remains of people who were waiting to escape by boat.
The site is much smaller than neighbouring Pompeii. It receives about 500,000 visitors per year compared to Pompeii's four million but excavations are continuing all the time. Other recent discoveries include wooden furniture and a library of ancient papyrus scrolls. Earlier this month scientists said the delicate scripts could be read again thanks to the development of a new x-ray technique and artificial intelligence.