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Beneath ruins, a lost civilization

Pompeii find shows city's pre-Roman past

POMPEII, Italy -- For Pompeii's 2 million yearly visitors, the overwhelming attraction is the captivating view of daily life in the Roman Empire evoked by the ruined city's temples, taverns, houses and public baths, and ever-popular brothels with their erotic frescoes.

They might fail to notice the newly dug trenches at the city's southwest exit that nevertheless provide a glimpse of a fact obscured by Pompeii's better-known association with the imperial era: A pre-Roman civilization thrived here for three centuries, with its own temples, houses, baths, and saucy sexual practices.

Last month, archeologists from Italy's Basilicata University uncovered the remains of a structure built by the Samnites, a mountain warrior people who conquered and ruled Pompeii before Roman chariots wheeled into town. Looking for the remains of Pompeii's harbor, researchers instead found a pre-Roman temple wall, clay offerings to the Samnite goddess of love, and a basin and terra-cotta pipes indicating the site of a ritual bath.

They were digging below Pompeii's surface because the focus of excavations here has changed. For 250 years, most excavation concentrated on the city that was buried in ash and stone by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Until the 1990s, local officials believed constant discoveries from the Roman era were needed to preserve Pompeii's position as Italy's most popular tourist attraction.

But current administrators say this approach has become counterproductive, noting they can barely afford to maintain the scores of monuments already exposed. Only 34 acres of Pompeii's excavated 115 acres are open to visitors, half the expanse on view 50 years ago. Tourists take pieces of marble for souvenirs, and thieves frequently raid the sites. .

Pompeii's archeological superintendent, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, decreed an end to the expansion of digs outward.

''By searching vertically, one uncovers the full history of the city. The surface Roman part is only part of the story," Guzzo said in a recent interview. Too, ''going deep doesn't cost so much. It won't include restoration or opening more area to tourism or hiring more guards."

Subterranean Pompeii may not contain the luxurious villas and elegant sculptures found on the surface, but for archeologists trained to perceive a universe in a clay shard, it is no less exciting.

''Pompeii is a city which, unluckily for it but fortunately for us, is best known for being destroyed. In everyone's mind, it is frozen at the moment of destruction, when it was a Roman city," said Emmanuele Curti, chief archeologist on the latest dig. ''But Pompeii was a city long before that, and it's good to remind the world of that."

The Samnites occupied much of southern central Italy and expanded to the Pompeii area around the sixth century BC. Beginning in 343 BC, they fought three wars with Rome, which had not yet become the peninsula's sole power.

Pompeii fell to Rome in 290 BC. Still, the Romans were interested in peace, not occupation. They signed an alliance that permitted the Samnites to maintain autonomy for 200 years.

That long peace ended early in the first century BC when the Samnites, along with other subjugated peoples, rebelled. The Romans then conquered Samnite cities, including Pompeii; established military colonies inside Samnite territory; forced Latin on the people; and killed anyone who resisted.

The victorious general, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, built a temple to Venus, which until last month was thought to stand on unimportant ground in Pompeii. It turns out to have been built on top of the Samnites' temple to Mephitis, their own love goddess. Archeologists say they expect to find the center of the Samnite temple beneath the toppled columns of its Roman replacement.

The bath and amulets indicate the Samnite practice of ritual prostitution, in which young women, rich and poor alike, submitted to sex as a rite of passage, said Curti, the archeologist. ''To our post-Victorian minds, the practice seems strange. But we can't look at this society through our eyes," he observed.

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