Saturday, January 26, 2008

Roman Gardens

Mary Beard pays tribute to a deceased colleague:
I had missed the sad fact that Wilhelmina Jashemski died just before Christmas, aged 97. Hardly a household name, she had been Professor at the University of Maryland for almost 40 years, retiring in the 1980s. It was, however, thanks to her that we have a reasonably good idea what the average Roman garden once looked like. I never met her .. and our only contact was when she asked me to write an article on ancient cucumber frames (sic -- which I regretfully declined). But I find that I’ve been using her more and more while I’ve been writing about Pompeii.
Jashemski’s triumph was to see that you could do a proper archaeology of Roman gardens. That meant not just picking up all those microscopic traces of seeds and pollen that earlier archaeologists simply didn’t spot. Jashesmski did for plant roots what Giuseppe Fiorelli did for dead bodies.
That is to say, where Fiorelli in the late nineteenth century saw that you could pour Plaster of Paris into the cavities left in the lava by decaying corpses and reveal the shapes of the bodies, Jashemski saw that you could do the same with the roots of plants … and so see what big trees/shrubs had been growing.
The other one that I’ve found really interesting is in the “House of Julius Polybius”, just a few doors away from "Chaste Lovers". The space is roughly the same, and it’s also in an open court in the centre of the house. Bt this time Jashemski’s work revealed a quite different plan. This plot was not an ornamental garden at all. It was packed full of fruit trees and probably a couple of olives, and against the boundary wall more trees were espaliered.
The guess is that these might have been something exotic, like lemons. The evidence? Well around the roots, there were still fragments of the terracotta pots in which these trees had been planted out – and that’s the kind of process that Pliny recommends for more delicate plants.
It was in other words a working garden, not an elegant place for a promenade at all. Further proof of this was found in the print of a ladder some 8 metres tall found on the surface of the soil. It tapered towards the top, and Jashemski’s workmen instantly recognised it as the kind of ladder they used for picking fruit.

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