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
The key to finding reliable information is to ask the right
questions and let the artefacts guide you to the answers, she
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
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
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
“They have concentrated on finding evidence in Pompeii that will
substantiate the written texts, rather than investigating what was
“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
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 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
“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
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’
“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