In a rut
I’m off to Los Angeles next week for my stint at the Getty Research Institute. The plan is to work on Pompeii.
First of all, I’m going to be taking a serious, hard look at the traces of religious activities that have come up from the excavations (what exactly were those “lararia” for?). But that’s supposed to move on to writing a more general book. My sense is that most books about Pompeii for non-specialists don’t manage to exploit a lot of the new archaeological work that’s being done on the site. Except, of course, for studies of vulcanology. They’re always full of the latest boffin theory on pyroclastic flow, lava surges and the like – and they detail the death throes of the poor inhabitants minute by minute.
I’m intending to steer clear of death and destruction, “Pompeii the disaster movie”. Instead I want to think about what the buried city can tell us about ancient life.
The Getty Library probably owns one of the best collections on Pompeii in the world. But I still felt that I ought to go and take another look at the ruins themselves before I ended up so many thousand miles away. So last weekend, I went off to Naples to spend a couple of days on the site and at the Naples Museum.
Top of the agenda -- thanks in part to your interest in an earlier post -- were the loos (the Roman ones, that is) and the cart ruts in the streets.
I have to confess that I didn’t make much progress on the loos. Since I last wrote, I have discovered some good bibliography on the subject, if you’re interested. I particularly like Gemma Jansen’s article, “Private Toilets at Pompeii: appearance and operation”, in S. E. Bon and R. Jones, Sequence and Space in Pompeii – even if her conclusions aren’t all that surprising. Pompeians liked to be able to sit down on the loo, they “wanted to get ride of urine and feces, possible through flushing with water”, they didn’t like peeing in total darkness.
The trouble is that toilets are often located in the back parts of houses – which means that, even in those houses that are open to the public (and there’s not all that many of them), they are in the parts that are off limits. So any serious work on defecation etc will have to wait until I get a special permit.
No such problem gets in the way of looking at the ruts, those deep gashes in the paved streets caused by hundreds of years of carts trundling through them. They’re one of the most memorable sights of the ancient city -- partly, I think, because they do make you feel closer to real Pompeian life. That is, they are real traces of someone actually moving around the place on their daily business . . . where now only tourists stroll.
Recently archaeologists have had the bright idea of looking closer at these ruts and wondering if you could use them to trace the traffic flow. Some things turn out to be clear enough. There are certainly some pedestrian-only areas near the forum, and other places where you can deduce the ancient equivalent of traffic calming measures.
But an article in last year’s Journal of Roman Archaeology began to sketch out a whole one-way street system for one area of the city (largely on the basis of the direction of the ruts and the worn kerb stones at junctions, and what they showed about the way the traffic was turning). I wanted to have a look at this evidence with my own eyes. Could you really tell which way the carts were travelling at these key junctions? Could you then plot the one-way streets? And, if so, could you start to imagine what kind of authority in ancient Pompeii would have been able to impose this system? Where are the one-way street signs?
So what was my verdict? Well there’s certainly something in it. And anyone can have some good fun on the site thinking about how the ruts and scrapes might reveal the traffic flow at some of these key junctions. But I didn’t buy the whole scheme. The real problem is knowing what the scrapes on the kerbside mean. It wasn’t clear to me, for example, that scrapes on the right-hand kerb of a junction really did mean that traffic was taking a sharp right. And it wasn’t clear that the ruts showed that either. After all, if you want to negotiate a sharp right turn, aren’t you actually more likely to move to the left of the street and then swing around in a large loop to the right. Isn’t a right turn, in other words, more likely to leave scrape marks on the left hand curb?
Much as I hate “re-con” history, I came to the conclusion that the only way you could decide what was going on was by building a mock-up cart (we know the standard axle width from the ruts). Then you could steer it round the junctions and see what happened.