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.
Whole gardens came to life.
I’ve been looking at a few of these for my Pompeii book. One of them – the garden in the site in Pompeii known as the “House of the Chaste Lovers” (called after some rather coy kissing in the wall paintings) – is a text book case of how we imagine any classical garden to be. It’s a smallish garden within a colonnaded courtyard. Really careful excavation has shown that there were geometrical flower beds, marked off with decorative fences made of reeds. The flower beds contained nice colour contrasts of little cypress trees and roses, with lower-growing plants round the edges. The boundary wall sported a luscious vine.
The excavators concluded, from the number of cockle shells found there, that the ancient Pompeians would have wandered through the garden, eating their cockles, then chucking the shells away. Another solution is that the garden was a convenient dumping ground for any used shell from any part of the house (a bit like cigarette butts now).
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.
Hers was a brilliant career, literally bringing to life a whole forgotten (or at least mis-remembered) area of the ancient world – and giving us back some of its blooms.