Garden archaeology and archaeologists

There is no evidence for the gardens of Herculaneum having had lawns. So why is this grass here?

There is no evidence for the gardens of Herculaneum having had lawns. So why is this grass here?

I despair of the archaeologists who manage historic gardens – please can someone cheer me up by pointing to some good examples of garden archaeology combined with garden management. (Photograph of Herculaneum courtesy dandwig)

The best garden archaeologists, like those who ‘restored’ Kenilworth Castle Garden, seem to be dry academics devoid of design sense or design judgment. Normal, bad, garden archaeologist-managers seem to work on the principle that ‘we don’t know much about historic gardens so they must have resembled modern gardens’. Gertrude Stein remarked that ‘Civilization begins with a rose. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.’ GERTRUDE STEIN DID NOT say “Civilization begins with a garden. A garden is a garden is a garden is a garden.” Garden archaeologist-managers reason that because modern gardens have lawns and shrubs THEREFORE historic gardens must have been the same. It is rubbish and their approach to garden management is rubbish.

Take Roman peristyle gardens as an example. I know of many fresco paintings of Roman garden planting, always with flowers and birds, but not one single  example of an illustration of a Roman lawn. So why do our garden archaeologists supply all excavated Roman gardens with lawns? Are they vandals, penny-pinching accountants or imbiciles?

Garden fresco at Pompeii - showing lush planting in a courtyard

Garden fresco at Pompeii - showing lush planting in a courtyard

Roman courtyard gardens DID NOT have mown lawns and the Romans DID NOT have lawn mowers. They clipped box, to make what we call topiary, but there are very few illustrations of linear and uniform box hedging of the type which became common in renaissance gardens. Nor are there any illustrations of Roman parterres – and I am doubtful about the accuracy of Barry Cunliffe’s ‘restoration’ of the garden at Fishbourne Roman Palace

21 thoughts on “Garden archaeology and archaeologists

  1. Tom Turner Post author

    At 200 BCE, the House of the Surgeon was probably Greek and I do not think Greek courtyards were planted. Later houses in Pompeii were often planted – but not with lawns!

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  2. Tom Turner Post author

    I think Pompeii became Roman at a comparatively late date, though it was probably unlike mainland Greek sites from earlier times. Not sure! Wiki reports that “After the Samnite Wars (4th century BC), Pompeii was forced to accept the status of socium of Rome, maintaining however linguistic and administrative autonomy. In the 4th century BC it was fortified. Pompeii remained faithful to Rome during the Second Punic War. Pompeii took part in the war that the towns of Campania initiated against Rome, but in 89 BC it was besieged by Sulla. Although the troops of the Social League, headed by Lucius Cluentius, helped in resisting the Romans, in 80 BC Pompeii was forced to surrender after the conquest of Nola, culminating in many of Sulla’s veterans being given land and property, while many of those who went against Rome were ousted from their homes. It became a Roman colony with the name of Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum.”

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  3. Christine

    I found a reference to the arrival of the Greeks in this part of Italy in ‘A Classical Dictionary: Containing the Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Authors – Part II’ …. by Charles Anton:

    “There was an ancient tradition in Italy, in the time of the historian Dionysius, of a sudden irruption of strangers from the opposite coast of the Adriatic, which caused a general commotion and dispersion among the aboriginal tribes. Afterward came the Hellenic Colonies which occupied the whole seacoast….to the extremity of the peninsula, in the first and second centuries of Rome,..”

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  4. Tom Turner Post author

    There are few surviving examples of ancient Greek residential areas – but Delos is one such and has mosaic-paved courtyards (with water tanks beneath) which can only have had plants in pots if they had any plants.

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  5. Tom Turner Post author

    Heck – I thought Delos was a holy island – not a free port slave market! Maybe it was the Dubai of its day. Though the ‘slave’ labour in Dubai hired under contract, the comparison between their working conditions and those of the ‘owners’ is like that of slave:master – and there are grim stories about the treatment of Philippino girl ‘slaves’. I am expecting a slave revolt at some point in the future, perhaps when the US defense umbrella weakens.

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  6. Christine

    This part of Delos’ history seems to be refer to the period after the decline of Rhodes and Corinth. [ http://holidays-in-greece.com/cyclades/mykonos/aegean/history.shtml#Jump2 ] Apparently it was the centre of the Aegean slave trade.
    [ http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0005_0_05066.html ]It seems Delos was the place where the ship owners built their villas?

    Not sure if comparisons can be drawn to Dubai…or US defenses.

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  7. Christine

    However, the decline of Rhodes and Corinth is linked with invasions at this time by Germanic tribes.

    Other interesting artefacts linked to Greek prehistory and early religions are housed in the British Muesum….

    “There are Babylonian ring stones and Assyrian seal stones in the British Museum, depicting forms that are half human and half fish, while at Pasargadae in Persia, a gate has been found on the jamb of which there is a relief representation of such a dual-form being. Eusebius, a 4th century Christian chronicler, mentioned similar creatures who appeared, he said, during the years of the Babylonians. Eusebius found this information in the texts of Apollodoros, a 2nd century BC historian and philosopher who was interested in the genealogy of the gods before the Flood.”

    [ http://ezinearticles.com/?The-East-Side-Of-Athens-Ancient-Agora&id=952178 ]

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  8. Tom Turner Post author

    I’d like to know more about the history of ‘sanctuaries’. It could well be that henges in Celtic Europe functioned as sanctuares in the sense of places where sometimes warring tribes could meet for religious festivals, marriages AND trade. Also, I think Mecca functioned in this way at the time of Muhammad’s birth (ie as a place for religion and trade – I don’t know about marriages). Greek sanctuaries are the best known and many,like Olympia, were far from cities.

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  9. Christine

    I suppose the sacred grove at Olympia was the public sanctuary, although some authors seem to refer to the whole site at Olympia as a sanctuary? On Delos it seems that rites of purification, including the removal of dead bodies and prohibitions on births and deaths and neutrality in trade, were important for ensuring it was a suitable as a holy site.

    “There’s nothing indefinite about the word ‘sanctuary.’It means safety. Protection was first offered, unspoken, by the topography of places where sanctuary was found: a hilltop, an island, a cave, a ring of encircling hills. Then came design: a shady grove, strong walls, or a single line of stone markers…

    …Use divides sacred outdoor enclosures into public and private spaces. Public sanctuaries were where the oldest forms of worship were held. A community’s celebration of the gods in prayer, procession, and sacrifice was intended to order the rounds of nature. From drought, famine, plagues, war, and other disasters the sanctuary offered the hope of relief, if not relief itself. A sanctuary’s form often mirrored a culture’s concept of the cosmos, and its vision of an afterlife.”

    See Mac Giswold ‘A History of the Sanctuary Garden’ published in Design Quarterly, June 22, 1996.

    Perhaps the slave trade on Delos was considered to ‘pollute’ the site? There is reference in this document to two Bithynian slaves who were freed in the Delhic sanctuary in the middle of the 2nd century BC.
    [ http://www.pontos.dk/publications/books/bss-6-files/bss6_15_avram ]

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  10. Tom Turner Post author

    Thank you for the reference. I agree about the meaning of ‘sanctuary’ being pretty definite but (1)think the safety had other, and non-sacred, functions (2) I am less clear about the difference between a sacred grove and a sanctuary.

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  11. Christine

    In ‘Biodiversity Conservation: Problems and Policies’ (Perrings 1995) the authors say:

    “Sacred groves were once widely protected from Africa to China [Gadgil 1991, Yu 1991]..throughout the Old World. They continued to be so protected even after conversion to Christianity in the tribal state of Mizorum in northeastern India, now being called ‘safety forest’, while the village woodlot from which regulated harvests are made are called ‘supply forest’ [Malhortra, 1990].” p281

    [ http://ces.iisc.ernet.in/hpg/envis/mg/pdfs/mg138.pdf ]

    So it would seem, that the notion of sanctuary is linked to the sacred and reserved value of the place/object.

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  12. Christine

    I am not sure. There seems to be something critically important in the notion of chopping down the trees or not…which I believe is not a concept that we are currently familiar with in present day modern societies. Perhaps you have some ideas about this?

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  13. Christine

    It appears that sacred trees can be categorised according to a typology and that some trees where in fact dedicated/the abode of demons.

    In the paper ‘On the typology and the worship status of sacred trees with a special reference to the Middle East’ Amot Dafni states:

    “Gupta distinguishes a “tree-god”, whose worship became organized into a definite religion, from a “tree spirit”, whose propitiation degraded the level of sorcery and incarnation. In practice it is impossible to discern, “spirits”, “demons”, and “jinns” (general supernatural agents) as against “goddesses, “gods”, and “the deity” (religiously established worshipped elements). In the Middle East and North Africa, specific trees may be considered the abode of jinns, demons, or spirits, but these supernatural powers are never worshipped as a kind of “god”. No religious ceremonies are associated with or performed near these trees; these are regarded as heathen rites and are strictly prohibited.”

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  14. DanDwig

    Please note that the upper photograph is licensed under a Creative Commons attribution license. Failing to provide attribution on this page is in violation. Please remove it or provide proper attribution.

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  15. Kathryn Gleason

    We are (slowly)organizing an international Society for Garden Archaeology. We just got it through the Not-for-Profit steps and it now exists as of a few months ago. The idea was launched by Michel Conan at Dumbarton Oaks back in 2004, together with the idea for A Sourcebook of Garden Archaeology. This book has had a long history, but Amina-Aicha Malek (CNRS/Paris) took the editing in hand and we expect it to be print this spring by Peter Lang. We will launch the book and the society with a conference in Paris. The website listed above is just a place holder for the moment, but we plan to activite along with the Society. All of this is being done by a group with training in both design and archaeology. We can’t boast the combination of great archaeology and terrific interpretation that you seek, but we hope to contribute to the growth of a more rigorous approach to the excavation and interpretation of gardens. Your website has done much to build awareness of garden history!

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