Archaeologists have unearthed extremely rare ancient Roman frescoes, comparable to those found in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, in the southern city of Arles.
The unexpected discovery was made during a dig on the remains of a Roman villa near a car park in the Trinquetaille district of the historic French city, which began last year.
To their astonishment, archaeologists from the National Institute of Preventive Archaeological research (Inrap) uncovered the state room of the wealthy Roman villa to find one of the only full murals ever found outside Italy – others have simply been fragments. The frescoes were painted between 20 and 70 BC.
Archaeologists have compared the frescoes to those found in the villa of Boscoreale and the famous Villa of Misteryes in Pompeii, the ancient Roman town near Naples that was preserved under lava from an eruption of the Mt Vesuvius volcano.
After collecting several parts of a mural in a cubiculum (bedroom) composed of an antichamber and alcove last year, experts moved on to the state room of the Roman domus.
Among 11 images released on Friday by the Museum of Ancient Arles is one of a beautiful woman plucking the strings of a harp in rich Egyptian blues and red vermilion pigments, and whose pink lips and upturned face demonstrate “astonishing expressivity”. The fresco was only unearthed three weeks ago after spending 2,000 years in the dark.
The use of such luxurious colours underlines the wealth of the area during Roman times, experts said. The villa no doubt belonged either to rich tradesmen or the political elite of the city.
This part of Arles was a “sort of Beverly Hills” until the area was abandoned after a fire in the year 260, archaeologist Alain Genot told Le Monde newspaper. He said the quality of the works suggested the fresco artists had been dispatched from Italy to paint them.
Until now, only fragments of such Pompeii-style frescoes have been found in France. The mural also comprises false columns imitating marble and several figures painted against a vermillion background at half or three quarters life size. Experts said they were excellently preserved in earth and constituted a “veritable archaeological treasure”.
A new dig is planned for 2016 on a third villa.
After this excavation, the scientists will have over 12,000 boxes of the fresco fragments stored in black sand. These still need to be painstakingly pieced together like a giant puzzle. “There will be gaps, missing pieces in these frescoes that will be reborn,” said Marie-Pierre Rothé, scientific head of the operation. But she said the overall result will be “unique”.
She said it appears that other figures in the mural include the Greek god Pan and the entourage of Bacchus.
Because of the number of fragments, it could be as long as 10 years before the full fresco is completed.
However, Alain Charron, head curator at the Museum of Ancient Arles, said that parts of the mural could be exhibited temporarily before then to show off this incredible find.
The frescoes will be displayed alongside another major discovery of recent years – the oldest life-sized bust of Julius Caesar ever discovered.
Depicting the Roman emperor at an advanced age, with wrinkles and hollows in his face, the bust was discovered by divers in 2008 along with a collection of other finds in the Rhone near Arles, which Caesar founded.