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Last Updated: Monday, 18 July 2005, 23:44 GMT 00:44 UK
Rare Pompeii dinner set unveiled
By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

Ancient Pompeii silverware (photo: Archaeological Superintendence of Pompeii)
The silverware was perfectly preserved by volcanic ash and mud
A set of ancient silverware has been dug up from Pompeii, the Roman city destroyed by a volcano 2,000 years ago.

The hand-crafted goblets, plates and trays had been bundled into a wicker basket by an inhabitant fleeing the erupting Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

The tableware, well preserved in ash and mud, was discovered five years ago and archaeologists have used the latest techniques to separate 20 pieces.

Experts say it is the most important find of this kind for 70 years.

Thousands of inhabitants of Pompeii gathered up what few possessions they hoped to save and tried to escape from the firestorm and the clouds of volcanic ash and mud which descended upon their city.

Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, in charge of the excavations at the world's first scientifically excavated archaeological site, told a news conference that the remains of up to 2,000 citizens of Pompeii out of a population of 10,000 to 15,000, trapped by the eruption have so far been recovered.

"But no-one knows exactly how many managed to escape," he said.

Silverware stashed

One man bundled his family silverware into a wicker basket and ran for his life.

He hid the basket in a stairwell in some public baths on the outskirts of the city before being overcome by fumes.

Archaeologists checking on the building of a new motorway near Pompeii dug it up, next to the man's skeleton.

The wicker basket and its contents were congealed into a solid block.

Ancient Pompeii silverware (photo: Archaeological Superintendence of Pompeii)
The set is the most important find of this sort in more than 70 years
Working with the latest archaeological techniques, including x-ray, experts have managed to separate the silverware, remove the heavy encrustations of the eruption and salvage them.

The remains of the basket are currently being treated with chemicals to preserve the vegetable fibre and are also expected to be put on show eventually.

The solid silver plates and goblets - all beautifully polished - were brought to Rome under heavy security guard for a private viewing. Together they weigh more than 4kg (9lbs).

I saw two exquisitely engraved wine cups, a set of small dishes, a large serving plate with an elaborately chased border, a spoon, plus some tiny, finely worked silver trays for appetisers.

Two other similar and larger hoards of table silver excavated in Pompeii during the 19th and 20th Centuries are on show in the Louvre museum in Paris and at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. But no new treasure trove of this quality from Pompeii has been seen for more than 70 years. It will be put on show at the Naples museum during 2006.

Tight security

Italian Culture Minister Rocco Buttiglione, who attended the unveiling of the display, the property of the Italian state, said Italy was drawing up new measures to protect its cultural treasures, after the bomb attacks in London.

"We don't want to send out the wrong message," he said. "But at a time of rampant international terrorism we need to make our museums even safer. We are improving their security and that of visitors."

There will be an increase in security guards, surveillance cameras and the use of metal detectors.

Other tourist attractions such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence have been identified by government security advisers as possible targets for attacks.

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