At Large  August 26, 2022  Danielle Vander Horst

The Gardens of Pompeii & Natural Disasters in Antiquity

Credit: Danielle Vander Horst.

Dana Zentgraf (excavator, PhD Student Christian-Albrechts-Universität Kiel) shakes soil through a sifter to look for finds that might otherwise be overlooked by the eye in the trench.

The Casa della Regina Carolina Project (Cornell University; University of Reading; Bologna University), focused on an imperial Roman home located in the heart of Pompeii, seeks to rework many aspects of how we view Roman life, but chief among the team’s current goals are to examine how people of myriad socio-economic backgrounds would have experienced the planted garden spaces of an elite Roman home, and also how people in antiquity reacted to and recovered from natural disasters.

But why a garden and not the home itself? For one, the garden was a space that would have been experienced by a wide range of individuals from varying socio-economic, gender, and age statuses. From the homeowners, to visitors, to the enslaved, to children, to the gardeners who planted it, the garden could mean any number of things to anyone who walked through it. Roman gardens were rich and complex spaces that straddled many intersections of ancient life from religious and leisure activities to economic productivity, all three of which are areas that also would have involved a diverse array of peoples. Thus, the garden also represents the perfect locus in which all three of the project’s principal investigators (PIs) can combine their unique yet complementary research interests.

Credit: The Archaeological Park of Pompeii.

The official map used by visitors to the Pompeii Archaeological Park. The Casa della Regina Carolina has been circled in red in area VIII (orange). As can be seen, the house is in a premium location situated just around the corner from the Forum, the heart of the Roman city.

Dr. Kathryn Gleason (Cornell University) is a specialist in landscape architecture and ancient gardens, interested in the relationships between how the garden was designed and planted, and what we can understand of people’s experiences of it. Considering the home’s central location just around the corner from the city’s bustling forum, the garden’s ability to transform one’s spatial perception is of particular interest for her.

Dr. Annalisa Marzano (University of Reading; University of Bologna) focuses on the socio-economic aspects of the garden and home. She looks at how the house’s prime location to the center of Roman life and the garden’s potential economic productivity can intersect with more domestic and leisurely aspects of Roman domestic life, as well as interact with Pompeiian economic activity more broadly.

Dr. Caitlín Barrett (National Geographic Explorer; Cornell University) brings a background in Roman household archeology and seeks to look more closely at how ancient religion and ritual were woven into the fabric of the home through the garden’s two shrines. She is especially interested to show how the ancient home was at the intersection of many different categories and facets of life. While it might seem difficult to mediate between three unique sets of research interests, the project directors have combined their inquiries in meaningful and illuminating ways such that they have produced a more holistic view of the ancient home and its place in Roman society.

Credit: Danielle Vander Horst.

The co-Directors of the Casa della Regina Carolina Project (left to right): Dr. Annalisa Marzano (University of Reading; University of Bologna), Dr. Caitlín Barrett (Cornell University, National Geographic Explorer), Dr. Kathryn Gleason (Cornell University).

There are, however, other challenges associated with a project such as this. Pompeii is a complex site and has been under near constant excavation since the mid-1700s (though looting has occurred there since antiquity). As such, it is often the case that post-classical activity and materials are detected in the archeological record alongside more ancient evidence. At CRC, these activities also include contending with the modern garden that was planted in the space. Dr. Marzano, however, sees such challenges also as opportunities, saying that it gives them the chance to see “just how much [they] can really do with the latest techniques."

Some of the results thus far have been the recovery of ancient plant root cavities and, through modern subterranean scanning techniques, the knowledge that the garden was constructed and planted atop the ruins of other homes damaged during a massively destructive earthquake in 62 CE—just seventeen years before the fateful volcanic eruption. Such a revelation is meaningful for many reasons but perhaps most interesting is that the garden was a purposeful and large change made to the home after a major natural disaster.

0032: Site Registrar, Emily Lime (PhD Candidate UNC Chapel Hill), gently brushes soil away from the surface of a fresco recovered from the excavations.
Credit: Danielle Vander Horst.

Site Registrar, Emily Lime (PhD Candidate UNC Chapel Hill), gently brushes soil away from the surface of a fresco recovered from the excavations.

Archaeologists are most famously known for using trowels (left), however, some of their work requires finer and more delicate tools as can be seen here on the right.
Credit: Danielle Vander Horst.

Archaeologists are most famously known for using trowels (left), however, some of their work requires finer and more delicate tools as can be seen here (right).

Dr. Kathryn Gleason and Jane Millar Tully (project archaeobotanist, PhD Student University of Texas, Austin) work together to take plaster samples in the hopes of later recovering from them microbotanical and pollen data.
Credit: Danielle Vander Horst.

Dr. Kathryn Gleason and Jane Millar Tully (project archaeobotanist, PhD Student University of Texas, Austin) work together to take plaster samples in the hopes of later recovering from them microbotanical and pollen data.

3848: A fresco fragment from the garden of the Casa della Regina Carolina in Pompeii, Italy. 1st century CE.
Credit: Danielle Vander Horst, with permissions.

Detail view of a fresco fragment from the garden of the Casa della Regina Carolina in Pompeii, Italy. 1st century CE.

Dr. Gleason is particularly struck by the choice made by the homeowners as she notes that, “in the past, people typically just rebuilt exactly what they had before and often that’s an instinct that people have after significant natural disasters. People want to rebuild and get their lives back together, but our site is suggesting that we do actually have significant changes as a strategy for recovery.”

Research across the rest of the city has shown that such a strategy was used at many other houses too. That the expansion of gardens was a city-wide trend and not just isolated to one home also suggests economic implications both for the need of skilled labor and the acquisition of plants and planting materials.

Credit: Danielle Vander Horst, with permissions.

A Roman flower pot recovered from the CRC Excavation. 1st century CE. The drainage hole towards the base of the pot would have allowed excess water to exit the vessel much like how modern flower pots are still designed.

"It seems that Campania was quite crucial as a region in Roman Italy for developing new plant varieties,” says Dr. Marzano, “and one possibility is that in part the presence of so many large villas on the bay of Naples, and the fact that their owners could acquire skilled labor, contributed to this.”

Dr. Barrett sees this trend of “creating artificial, natural landscapes within the house…as expressing a desire to control the natural world.” Ironically, the volcanic eruption would leave such desires grossly unfulfilled less than two decades later, yet even this short-lived glimpse into disaster recovery techniques in the past has implications for how we view similar actions in our present. 

For instance, Dr. Gleason sees parallels between the garden at CRC and disaster recovery methods in Haiti and other earthquake-prone areas, where the desire for safe, open spaces has spurred many post-earthquake building plans.

Overall, the CRC Project stands to contribute much-needed and anticipated results to the field of Pompeiian and Roman domestic and urban life, expanding how we think of interconnectedness and diversity of experiences amongst ancient populations. Anyone interested in following the project is encouraged to keep an eye on their blog and Facebook page.

The Casa della Regina Project would like to thank:
For permission to carry out fieldwork: the Italian Ministry of Culture, the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, and Dr. Gabriel Zuchtriegel (director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii)
For assistance and support in the field: Dr. Giuseppe Scarpati (Archaeology Officer for Regio VIII of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii)

For institutional support:
2022 season: Department of Classics, Cornell University; Cornell Institute for Archaeology and Material Studies (CIAMS); Department of Landscape Architecture, Cornell University.
Institutional support for previous seasons has also been provided by the Department of Classics, University of Reading.

For funding:
2022 season: National Geographic Society; Dumbarton Oaks; Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies; Department of Classics, Cornell University; Cornell Institute for Archaeology and Material Studies (Hirsch Fund, Lewin Gift Fund, and CIAMS Supplementary Grants); College of Arts & Sciences, Cornell University (Rosenthal Award).

Additional funding for previous seasons has also come from the Rust Family Foundation, the European Research Council, the IMAGINE Campaign at the University of Reading, and at Cornell University: the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, the Society for the Humanities, the President’s Council of Cornell Women, and the Cornell Institute for European Studies).

About the Author

Danielle Vander Horst

Dani is a Ph.D. student in Classical Archaeology at Duke University. She has excavated with multiple projects in Italy and predominately researches ancient identities in the northwestern Roman provinces.

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