The "extraordinary" discovery was made outside the city walls, in Civita Giuliana to the north of Pompeii proper, the site's directors announced this week.
Excavation in the area revealed what archaeologists identified as a stable, complete with the remains of a trough.
Using the same technique that has allowed them to recreate the final poses of dozens of Pompeii's victims, whereby liquid plaster is injected into the cavities left behind when bodies encased in volcanic matter decomposed, they were able to cast the horse as it would have lain when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.
Photo: Parco Archeologico di Pompei
From the remains of its skeleton, they believe the horse was an adult measuring around 150 centimetres tall at the withers: on the short side by today's standards, but given that horses were probably smaller at the time, the experts say it would have been exceptionally large for its time.
That, along with the fact that traces of a harness in valuable iron and bronze were found by its head, suggests that the animal was a specially bred parade horse, probably of considerable value.
While the skeletons of donkeys and mules have been found at Pompeii, in a stable attached to the Casa dei Casti Amanti ('House of the Chaste Lovers'), it's the first time archaeologists have unearthed the complete outline of a horse. The distinct imprint left by its ear, pressed to the ground as the animal lay on its left side, makes them confident this is indeed a horse and not another type of equid.
The imprint of the horse's left ear. Photo: Parco Archeologico di Pompei
Along with a pig and a dog, it is one of the few animals of any species to be successfully cast at Pompeii.
Its survival is all the more remarkable for the fact that the area where it was found – a sort of suburb of ancient Pompeii – has been subjected to illegal excavations in recent decades. Alarmed by the discovery of unauthorized tunnels, the site's archaeologists began new digs at Civita Giuliana in order to halt the intrusions and protect its remaining treasures.
As well as the horse, they also found the remains of jugs, tools and kitchen utensils, as well as the grave of a man buried after the fatal eruption – which indicates that people continued to live around or on top of the ruins even after the disaster.
Intriguing discoveries continue to be made at Pompeii, nearly two millennia and scores of excavations later. Last month, archaeologists discovered the complete skeleton of a young child in a bathhouse long thought to have been fully excavated.
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