There is a common perception that life in the once-thriving Roman city of Pompeii is well-known from the wealth of artefacts that have been uncovered since its accidental discovery in 1748, but this is far from the case, according to findings of University of Leicester archaeologist Dr Penelope M Allison.
Until recently archaeologists working on Pompeian artefacts have tended to concentrate on examples of art, some of it erotic, from the town that was suddenly destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August 79 AD. But Dr Allison’s recently published book, The Insula of the Menander in Pompeii vol 3: the finds, a contextual study, has changed this emphasis.
"I am looking at pots and pans and how houses actually functioned," she said. "I am interested in revealing the utilitarian side of life rather than its glamorous side; in slaves and servants and how they lived side by side with their masters. We always assume that servants were kept out of sight, but this is a 19th century view.
"If we look at the distribution of domestic material in Pompeii houses, such as the cupboards where pots and pans were kept, we find they were in the main front hall, the atrium where visitors would be received. The same is true of the main household water supply. Slaves would be coming to get these things all the time and would be far from invisible."
Dr Allison has been working on Pompeii for over 20 years. Her previous study was to look at 30 houses in the light of the everyday objects that had been largely ignored in favour of more exotic finds. She became fascinated by what the actual objects might have been used for and who might have used them.
"Today we have hundreds of very specific gadgets," she said, "but in a non-gadget world you have a number of things used for a variety of purposes, such as pots that might have been wine dippers and spindle whorls that were used as furniture ornamentation.
"Also, we assume we know about doctors in the Roman world. We believe that whenever we find medical instruments they belonged to doctors. But I think that a lot more high-level first aid went on within households. We have found surgical instruments in domestic contexts and I think someone in the house was responsible for sewing up injured people. Nowadays we have a much more specialised approach to looking after the human body."
Dr Allison also speculates on the amount of cooking that went on in the huge kitchens in affluent Roman households. "I found little braziers and flat vessels that were burned underneath that might have been used round the house, more like our barbecues, indicating that food was heated up in front of diners. Maybe Roman cooking smells did not offend these diners."
She has found no sets of tableware in Pompeian houses such as are found in Roman burial sites. Formal dining could have been very rare, she surmises, with people perhaps eating ‘on the wing’, much as busy families do today.
The implications of her research and recent book stretch beyond Pompeii itself, to how other Roman sites can be interpreted. Because of the suddenness of its destruction, Pompeii offers a context for the artefacts that are found, in a way that virtually no other site can do.
She has been looking at objects found in the same room and speculating on what that suggests in terms of usage of such objects. "For instance, why were this plate and these lamps found together? Were they indicative of some kind of offering? What were the lamps for? What was the situation that brought them together, and how would you have lit this space?" she asks.
Other finds that have puzzled her are the large quantities of heavy stone weights and scales in houses. "Today everything has its weight written on it when we buy it," she explains, "but in the Roman world everything would have to be weighted coming in and out of the houses.
"Also, where there are a number of looms found in one house, does this imply commercial activity? Not necessarily. We need to think more carefully about the relationship between commercial wool shops and the houses. Did women buy wool from shops and weave for their own household, selling off the surplus? We don’t know, this is not something archaeologists have looked at. Was weaving done by both men and women? We would assume men were involved in any commercial environment, but this is just our conception.
"We are taking Roman domestic life into a more intellectual realm," Dr Allison said, adding a caution. "Domestic life in the past was not necessarily the same as it is nowadays."
Dr Allison is one of a small number of prestigious ‘New Blood’ research appointments made recently at the University of Leicester. These lectureships offer young and talented research staff an opportunity to pursue their research, with a reduced teaching load during the first four years of employment and funding for research travel.
When the University first advertised the New Blood appointments nearly 1000 applications were received for the 21 posts on offer. Two New Blood appointments were made in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History.
The Insula of the Menander in Pompeii vol 3: the finds, a contextual study by Dr Penelope M Allison is published by Oxford University Press. It is part of a five-volume detailed study of one Pompeian city block by the British Pompeii Committee.
Contact: Penelope Allison
University of Leicester