Photograph by Rémi Bénali
Photograph by Rémi Bénali

Lavish 2,000-Year-Old Mansion Reveals Puzzle

Archaeologists piece together a Pompeii-style fresco in southern France.

This story appears in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Vibrant scenes that decorated a mansion more than 2,000 years ago are turning up at a Roman-era site in the southern French city of Arles, astounding the archaeologists who have been working there since 2014. Patches of painted plaster still cling to the masonry walls of a bedroom and reception hall, which are preserved in places to a height of more than three feet. In addition, thousands of fragments that fell off the walls have been recovered from the excavated earth. Reassembled images include figures never before seen in France, such as this woman playing a stringed instrument, possibly a character from mythology.

The paintings are so masterfully executed, with such expensive pigments, that experts believe the artists originally came from Italy and were hired by one of the city’s elite. Perhaps a Roman official wanted Pompeii-like decor to remind him of home while he was stationed in this provincial trading port, founded in 46 B.C. as a colony for veterans of the Roman legion. Or a wealthy local wanted to show off his worldly sophistication. The frescoes may yield even more stunning surprises as additional sections are pieced together like puzzles.