BMCR 2003.09.27

The Natural History of Pompeii

, , The natural history of Pompeii. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xxiii, 502 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 31 cm. ISBN 0521800544 £130.00.

A new book on Pompeii by Wilhelmina Jashemski and her colleagues is a welcome event. Professor Jashemski’s monumental — and delightful — two-volume work on the gardens in and around Pompeii is well known both to classical scholars and to many others with a professional or personal interest in the subject. (The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius, vol I, New Rochelle, NY 1989 and vol II, New Rochelle, NY 1993 = Gardens I and Gardens II.) The publication discussed here has its origin in the realisation that much scientific work was being published in specialist journals and that this significant new research would be of interest to a wide readership. The scientists involved took part in a symposium at Dumbarton Oaks in 1986, and this was followed by another working symposium in 1989. At a later stage three more scholars (Bisel, Kuniholm and Mols) were invited to contribute chapters in order to make the book as comprehensive as possible. This long gestation has resulted in a wide-ranging study of the geology, flora and fauna of the Vesuvian area, that is at the same time uneven and in some respects already dated.

The parameters of the volume are given in the Introduction. Natural history is defined as the systematic study of all natural objects, animal, vegetable and mineral. “Our group took our clue (surely that should be ‘cue’) — from the Natural History of the famed Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, the prototype of all subsequent works on natural history.” (p. 1). This is an attractive conceit, especially in view of the close connection of both the Elder and the Younger Pliny with the Vesuvian area, but it is not always appropriate (see below). Here, as in Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, some chapters are “largely narrative” while others are primarily catalogues. The specialist references given at the end of each chapter are one of the most valuable features of the book. First the largely narrative contributions.

“The Vesuvian Sites before A.D. 79, the archaeological, literary and epigraphical evidence” (Ch. 2, Jashemski) contains little that is new, but it is attractively illustrated and sets the scene well, particularly with regard to Jashemski’s own excavations. Volcanic activity in the region before A.D. 79 is described by Sigurdsson (Ch. 3). The Roman lack of awareness, despite the A.D. 62 earthquake, that Vesuvius was a volcano is understandable when one learns that it had been quiescent for 700 years. Recent research on volcanic eruptions, such as Mount St. Helens in 1980, has altered understanding of the volcanic processes, in light of which Carey and Sigurdsson (Ch. 4) provide a new and fascinating analysis of the Younger Pliny’s classic, eyewitness reports of the eruption of Vesuvius. The traditional view that Pompeii was buried under a rapid fall of pumice and ash while Herculaneum was inundated by mudflows is no longer correct; rather, there were several different types of volcanic process. The study of palaeosols or fossil soils provides information on the geologic and archaeological history of the area. A number of sites were sampled around the base of Vesuvius (Ch. 5, Foss, Timson, Ammons and Lee). The chemical characteristics and water-holding capacity of the soil have a direct bearing on the landscape, the variety of crops grown and the development of gardens in different areas.

The discussion of pollen analysis from the A.D. 79 level (Ch 7, Dimbleby and Grüger) is one of the most interesting chapters, although the exploratory work was disappointing. Dimbleby’s scepticism in 1972 as to the value of studying samples from garden soils was justified to some extent. (The reasons are: low pollen numbers because of decomposition in fertile garden soil; cultivated plants and weeds from the same family may be indistinguishable e.g. chysanthemums and groundsel; and some plants were not allowed to flower and so are not present in the pollen sample.) However, his unexpected discovery of olive pollen in trial samples led to further research, which was greatly assisted by advances in technology during the l980s. As a result we now have much more detailed information as to the trees, shrubs, grasses, weeds and ferns found in formal gardens and (from wind-blown pollen) in the surrounding area. Some of these findings have already been published in Gardens I and II. The number of tables may appear somewhat daunting to the non-specialist, but the explanation of methodology and helpful notes on the main taxa make this chapter easily accessible.

The study of plant and animal remains in and around Lake Avernus, some 30 km west of Pompeii in the Phlegraean Fields, arose out of the research described above. Campania is a small area which shares the same geologic history, flora and fauna. Lake sediment cores provided evidence of environmental changes, as well as a picture of the flora from 2000 B. C. to the present, and important information on marine life. (Ch. 11, Grüber, Thulin, Müller, Schneider, Alefs and Welter-Schultes.)

Wood is the subject of three short, but important chapters that complement one another. Chapter 8 (Hatcher) is a largely technical examination of samples of carbonized wood and plant materials associated with the A.D. 79 eruption. The identification of woods used in the furniture at Herculaneum will have a wider appeal. (Ch. 9, Mols. This is based on his Wooden Furniture at Herculaneum: Form, Technique and Function, Gieben, Amsterdam 1999.) The data derived from written sources are compared with data based on an analysis of some 50 wood samples. The latter show that local silver fir was widely used for ordinary functional furniture, such as beds and a cupboard, as well as items as diverse as amphora racks and even for wax tablets. However, since fir cannot be worked on a lathe, hardwoods (box and beech) had to be used for turning legs and for carved decoration. With hindsight it seems obvious that cheap, readily available wood would be the choice for ordinary furniture, yet the most often quoted source on furniture woods (R. Meiggs, Trees and Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean World, Oxford 1982, pp. 279-299) did not even mention fir. In some respects the findings confirm the written sources: for instance, Pliny says that fir is easy to plane and best of all woods to glue. On the other hand, some woods used at Herculaneum, such as oak (for a cradle) and hornbeam (for a table-top), are not mentioned by him at all. It is therefore unwise to rely on texts alone. Knowledge of the specific properties of different woods meant that wood was brought from a distance for a particular purpose. Dendrochronological investigations (Ch. 10, Kuniholm) have been concentrated on establishing construction dates. An unexpected finding was that some of the large timbers at Herculaneum had been imported from south Germany, probably floated down the river Po to Venice and thence by sea to Campania.

Other chapters are primarily catalogues, providing a greatly enlarged version of Appendix III in Gardens II: Ch. 6, Plants (Jashemski, Meyer and Ricciardi); Ch. 12 and Ch.13, Fish and Marine Invertebrates, Freshwater Shells and Land Snails (Reese); Ch. 14, Insects (Larew); Ch. 15, Amphibians and Reptiles (Bodson and Orr); Ch. 16, Birds (Watson); Ch. 17, Mammals (King). They take the form of a discussion followed by a catalogue of all the available evidence: material remains such as bones and carbonized plant material, wall-paintings, mosaics, sculpture and jewellery. Each catalogue entry is followed by a comprehensive list of ancient literary references, inscriptions and graffiti, including lists of items for sale and labels on containers — cherries, olives, and chick-peas.

By far the longest chapter (100 pages) is that on Plants, which embraces ferns, trees and also weeds. The garden paintings and excavations have been discussed before by Jashemski, but this catalogue contains a great deal of additional information. The exact botanical identification of plants from wall-paintings has always been a vexed question, as has the correct interpretation of the ancient descriptions; see, for instance, the entry for viola (pp. 170-71), the name given by the Romans to at least three different plants. On these topics J. E. Raven’s Gray Lectures and accompanying essays by W. T. Stearn, N. Jardine and P. Warren are worth reading (Plants and Plant Lore in Ancient Greece, Leopard’s Head Press, Oxford, 2000). Although the focus is on Greek botany, the discussions of methodology and sources such as Theophrastus and Dioscorides, quoted exensively by Jashemski et al, are relevant to Pompeii. Carbonized remains of plants and pollen, however, provide the only conclusive evidence. Research has been concentrated on the urban sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum so that the discovery of carbonized hay from a villa rustica at Oplontis was particularly significant since it indicates the plants and weeds growing in the countryside, about which far less is known (pp. 174-175).

One notable omission from this chapter is any significant reference to plants growing in the area round Vesuvius today. Yet when compared with a present-day sample, 27 of the 34 species found in the area today were also present in the carbonized hay from Oplontis. Nor is there discussion of medicinal plants, something of great interest to Pliny, who devoted Books 20-27 to the subject. Opinions do vary, but there is no doubt that oral tradition and the present day use of the same plants, particularly for medicinal purposes, are worth taking into account. Jashemski may have decided that she had already covered the subject in her small book, A Pompeian Herbal, where, for instance, the description of Hypericum (St John’s Wort, a herb popular today) and its use is much more detailed than in The Natural History. (A Pompeian Herbal, Ancient and Modern Medicinal Plants, University of Texas, Austin, 1999.) The Herbal also has beautiful line drawings, something that would have been desirable in The Natural History, as well as photographs of growing plants. Useful cross-references are made to illustrations in earlier publications, but this is not always convenient. I found myself copying photographs and slipping them between the pages for future reference. It would also have been helpful to signal changes in names — The House of the Wedding of Alexander in Gardens II , which contains some of the most beautiful and accurate paintings of plants and birds, has become The House of the Gold Bracelet in The Natural History.

Ch. 16 on Birds, also lengthy, is valuable. There are few skeletal remains of birds, apart from the detritus of meals, for the obvious reason that they could fly away. Only birds that can be reliably identified are catalogued. Birds were carefully observed and often depicted accurately. A small point, not mentioned, is that some paintings of individual birds were done separately and inserted into the wall-paintings later, which suggests that they were the work of specialist artists. Watson also notes that birds are shown in flight and interesting attempts made to represent their natural habitat. There is some confusion with regard to ancient sources. The modern text (p. 398) implies that Pliny (HN 10.80) is correct in saying that with the season the blackbird changes colour from black to red and that the beak of the yearling blackbird turns ivory-coloured; Pliny seems to have confused the colouring of mature and immature birds, and male with female. In fact, the male is a glossy black with a brilliant yellow bill whereas the female has dull, brownish plumage with reddish-brown chest and a pale yellow bill; the young generally resemble the female. Pliny, HN 10.22, is quoted as referring the migrations and local movements of blackbirds, or perhaps songbirds in general, but here Pliny is commenting on hawks.

The photographs, here and in general, are not nearly so clear as in Gardens I and II. This is unfortunate when accurate identification depends on precise details. Compare The Natural History, fig. 147 with the frontispiece of Gardens II. In the centre is a warbler perched on a hollow stake. The colour and detail of the plumage are much clearer in the latter, where one can also see something, probably an insect, in the bird’s beak. More important, the description in The Natural History (p. 362) refers to a “narrow back bar” near the tip of the tail, “more typical of one of the streaked warblers” (than of a reed warbler). It is obvious in Gardens II that this “bar’ is where the painting of the bird’s tail feathers has flaked away revealing the painted surface of the wall underneath. Also, compare the robin in The Natural History, fig. 311 with the same photograph in Gardens I, fig. 479. In the former the red of the breast cannot be seen, in the latter it is quite distinct. (This bird is the European robin, erithacus rubecula, not the larger North American robin, turdus migratorius.)

Ch. 17 on Mammals is another useful and wide-ranging chapter. There is a surprising quantity of archaeological material available, in addition to depictions in art, which are usually genre scenes, and the written evidence. Table 23 sets out the different types of evidence for each of the mammal species, a tabulation that would have been helpful in other chapters. In addition to observations, such as cows being used for work rather than for meat, King puts Pompeii in context. He provides a chronological perspective by looking at other bone assemblages and gives a long-term view of changes in diet and agriculture, which can differ from the literary evidence; for instance, Ovid’s comment that only pork was consumed in early Rome is contradicted here by the bone evidence.

There is much of interest in the other chapters for both specialist and general readers. Pompeians enjoyed fish and shell-fish as much as their modern counterparts; snails were also popular. Oak galls, caused by wasps, were sold for curatives (hangnails and toothache) or dyeing; weevils were pests then as now; and head-lice were “a common manifestation”. Larew’s objective in his introduction to Insects, “to demonstrate what is known and to tantalize with suggested potential” could also be applied to other chapters.

Chapter 15 on Amphibians and Reptiles is the the least satisfactory, dependent largely on representations in art, which Bodson has studied only in photographs. Her premise that they represent local fauna is questionable. She concludes that no snakes can be identified in art nor were accurately copied in jewellery. Her co-author, Orr, in a separate contribution on snakes on Pompeian household shrines agrees that they are fantastic creations. (This is nice, but adds little to his 1979 article, ANRW II, 16, 2, pp. 1572-5.) He identifies the snakes found today at Pompeii as the harmless colubrid-type, popular as house-pets and clearly used as models for jewellery found in the excavations.

Ch. 18, “Health and Nutrition at Herculaneum. An examination of human skeletal remains” by the late Sara Bisel is, appropriately, the final chapter. The discovery of 139 individuals on the shore of Herculaneum (with the prospect of many more still to be found) is important because they are a cross-section of the population and not the usual cemetery burials; the bodies are also well preserved. Some attempt has been made to update the references, but since this article was written there have been important advances in the study of human remains; for example, DNA analysis can now be used for genetic identification and disorders and also in recognizing diseases that do not necessarily leave a mark on the bones. The well-known question of lead poisoning was considered and bone lead content determined from 97 samples. Bisel makes the point that lead ingestion becomes a serious problem only when the calcium level falls, because of illness or starvation, and lead is then released into the circulation and soft tissues. It would have been helpful to have more details, perhaps in tabular form, of all 139 sets of skeletal remains. Bisel selected eighteen people, and her interpretation gives a vivid picture of their physical appearance, diet and social status. I am less happy about Bisel’s use of secondary sources. For instance, she assumes, following Carcopino, that girls were normally between 12 and 14 years of age when married, whereas the norm is now thought to be the late teens (B. D. Shaw, “The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage”, JRS 77 [1987] pp. 30-44). Too often analysis of skeletal remains is placed in the appendix to an archaeological report with minimal effort to flesh out the anatomical descriptions. Here Bisel recreates each of her Herculaneans, giving a graphic description of the physical condition and then explaining how the symptoms would have affected the individual. They sound like dramatis personae — a soldier, a young fisherman, two presumed prostitutes, a wealthy matron, a labourer with multiple fractures — and they were indeed unwitting participants in a tragedy. Some readers may think this is popularizing a step too far, but here it seems to be appropriate.

The comparison with the Elder Pliny’s Historia Naturalis runs through the book. One of his objectives was to provide a useful reference work that could be read section by section, and in this respect The Natural History of Pompeii compares well, albeit on a small scale. However, Pliny’s subject was also man and his relationship with nature. An attempt has made to widen the scope of The Natural History to include the surrounding area and to discuss the landscape, but the research is patchy. There is little discussion of the interdependence of town and countryside; there is no sense of the natural rhythm of the year — husbandry, the preparation of the soil, planting and harvesting of produce. For example, the inclusion of trees is limited to a list of those recognized in wall-paintings or identified from root cavities and carbonized remains, whereas Pliny also has a remarkably detailed discussion of arboriculture, the best kinds of manure, when and how to plant, methods of grafting and so on. Jashemski does touch upon this kind of information in Chapter 2 and has described elsewhere archaeological evidence for the care of trees, viticulture etc. Lack of space may have been the reason for the omission here, although much information on other topics is repeated from earlier works. There is little discussion of the natural resources, agriculture, and the flora and fauna found at Pompeii today, yet the functioning of the present landscape is also important for an understanding of the ancient countryside.

The book is beautifully produced and, though by a different publisher, is clearly intended to be a companion volume to Gardens I and II. There are very few typographical errors and only occasional infelicities; two ears of wheat do not make a sheaf (fig. 333). The maps and plans are excellent; several of the tables in Chapter 18 could have been retyped, but are adequate. Most of the new photographs are good, but unfortunately the beautiful photographs taken by the late Stanley Jashemski, which are such a valuable feature of the earlier volumes, have not been reproduced so well here.

Despite my reservations, this is a impressive compendium of current information and research. It will be enormously useful, especially when used in conjunction with Jashemski’s earlier books, The Gardens of Pompeii and Herculaneum and A Pompeian Herbal. It will have a very wide appeal — to specialists and amateurs in the fields discussed, botany, geology, zoology, to mention but a few, historians of gardening and agriculture, students of life in the ancient world, indeed anyone interested in the remarkable story of Pompeii. The authors conclude with the hope that this book with its interdisciplinary approach will be the basis for future research on the natural history of the Vesuvian sites. There will be many of us asking, like Oliver Twist, for more.