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Rethinking Pompeii

After more than 250 years of archaeological research, one might think Pompeii had given up all of its secrets, but it’s all a matter of asking the right questions according to Dr Penelope Allison.

There are few archaeological sites as famous as Pompeii. Buried under volcanic ash for nearly 2,000 years, it preserves a unique snapshot of ‘typical’ Roman life. Its documentation and research, since the mid-18th century, has added flesh to the bones of our understanding of Roman civilisation, as gleaned from the written texts of the period.

ANU archaeologist Dr Penelope Allison (below) has found that many impressions previously drawn from the site are wrong — and many of the modern concepts of life in Pompeii are not strictly accurate.

Dr Allison

The key to finding reliable information is to ask the right questions and let the artefacts guide you to the answers, she says.

Using modern technology and a fresh perspective — that of a 21st century female with a background in mathematics as well as archaeology — the answers she is finding have changed many accepted ideas about Pompeian life.

In the past, archaeologists often focused on digging up ‘valuable’ artefacts and uncovering beautiful paintings, rather than exploring how people lived. Dr Allison is interested in a broader picture, one that could not have been seen by previous generations of archaeologists — even if they had looked for it. Mining original archaeological records, she has compiled an exhaustive computerised database of information, which lets the numbers (and the patterns of artefact distribution) speak for themselves.

“I’ve looked at 30 houses and all their recorded contents. The tendency in the past has been to excavate the houses and put all the objects away in a store room, unless they were attractive, and then leave the houses vacant,” she says.

“The excavators initially tended to deal with the paintings and architecture rather than the totality.

“The quality of recording more mundane artefacts has improved, but there is still a tendency to put things away in a room and a glass specialist or a pottery specialist will come along and look at them later.”

Statistical approach

Dr Allison has taken a statistical approach to the distribution of artefacts in Pompeian houses in her new book, Pompeian Households: An Analysis of the Material Culture. For example, if two thirds of the houses in her database have cupboards filled with domestic utensils in their atrium, it’s hard to argue this room had no domestic function.

Previously, the atrium of Roman houses had been thought to be reserved for business and ostentatious display — a male-dominated area where the master of the house would have entertained his clients. However, analysis of Pompeii excavation records by Dr Allison shows that these areas contained cupboards full of domestic items, like pots and spinning and weaving equipment. This suggests that women and slaves would have been wandering in and out all the time, making such spaces lively, open, family areas.

Her background in mathematics has undoubtedly helped her in this scientific, computerised approach, but after completing an undergraduate degree in the subject, Dr Allison followed her passion for archaeology.

She began her postgraduate studies with a conventional interest in Roman art, first working in Pompeii to research wall paintings for her masters thesis. This led her to question the relationship between the paintings and the spaces they decorated, resulting in a PhD on the distribution of Pompeian house contents.

A lot of the information that has been gathered from Pompeii is influenced by 19th and early 20th century biases, Dr Allison argues, which have tried to shoehorn the archaeological evidence to fit a model provided by the Roman written texts.

“Archaeologists in the 19th and early 20th century were invariably male, invariably bourgeois and usually classically trained.

“They have concentrated on finding evidence in Pompeii that will substantiate the written texts, rather than investigating what was actually there.

“For example, the writings of the Roman architect Vitruvius include a guide to building a Roman townhouse. It is likely Vitruvius never built a house and never visited Pompeii, yet Pompeian homes have been assumed to conform to his descriptions.”


Furthermore, labels have been taken from Vitruvius’ texts, applied to spaces in Pompeian houses and then translated inaccurately to equate with the names and uses of rooms in contemporary houses, Dr Allison says.

"The idea that we know what a room is called and therefore we know how it is used has nothing to with archaeology"

Dr Allison

The word ‘cubiculum’ has traditionally been applied to small rooms around the front hall (or atrium) of a Pompeian house and equated with the word ‘bedroom’, in the modern sense. Often the number of so-labelled ‘cubicula’ have then been seen as indicative of how many people lived in a house, but Dr Allison doubts the concept of a bedroom, as we understand it, would have been relevant in Roman times.

“The idea that we know what a room is called and therefore we know how it is used has nothing to with archaeology.

“If you were a wealthy Roman and you fell asleep on your couch after dinner, why not just sleep where you were?” asks Dr Allison.

This behaviour would be outrageous from a Victorian perspective, but the evidence suggests the possibility should not be discounted. Dr Allison’s analysis of artefacts recovered from Pompeian homes shows beds were generally in the eating and living areas of the house and not necessarily in a cubiculum. In one house, nine bodies were found lying on beds in a dining area, while Caligula is thought to have kept his horse in his cubiculum.

“This idea of separating out space is very much a 19th century idea, yet it has been applied to ancient Roman sites with disregard for the evidence,” Dr Allison says.

When evidence has contradicted 19th century norms or Vitruvius’ texts, it has traditionally been discounted as either wrong or as an anomaly caused by disorder, disruption and panic in the days leading up to the eruption of Mt Vesuvius.

It hasn’t escaped Dr Allison’s notice that, just as the first archaeologists saw a segregated Victorian-style life when they looked at Pompeian homes, she sees open plan living reminiscent of contemporary Australian homes with their sprawling ‘family’ areas.

“We are always projecting our own ideas, that’s the interesting part, but it isn’t a problem if you are conscious of what you are doing and base your conclusions on the evidence itself.”

What was needed was someone like Dr Allison to come along and ask the right questions.

In her current project, Dr Allison is again taking a high-tech approach to Roman archaeology, applying new technology and new questions to life inside Roman forts. Read more

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ANU Reporter Summer 2004/05 contents