The prospects for an International Society for Garden Archaeology

This is not a disused railway siding in Birmingham. It was once the grandest garden court in Europe's grandest palace: the Palace of the Emperors on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Something should be done. But what?

I was very pleased to hear from Kathryn Gleason about the foundation of International Society for Garden Archaeology. The Gardenvisit blog has a number of posts on garden archaeology and I have gleaned the following thoughts from them:

1) the work archaeologists do on archaeology is of great value, for the information it yields and for the carefulness of their approach. But the work archaeologists do on garden ‘restoration’ and ‘management’ is generally terrible. It tends to lack each of the three essentials for dealing with historic garden sites: (a) a broad perspective on garden history (b) design judgment (c) technical knowledge of construction techniques and building materials (d) technical knowledge and skill with plant material and techniques of plant management
2) garden archaeologists should take an interest in two separate but related issues (a) the investigation, care and management of what are primarily archaeological sites (b) the investigation, care and management of what are primarily garden sites
3) I admire the garden archaeological work of Wilhelmina Feemster Jashemski (at Pompeii and Herculaneum) and of Barry Cunliffe (at Fishborne Roman Palace) but I do not admire they ‘resotrations’ of Roman gardens.
4) the archaeological principle of preserving evidence should have a strong position in the care and management of historic gardens
5) the current condition of the garden courts in Rome’s Palace of the Emperor’s (on the Palatine Hill) is depressing
6) the vast crowds who course through the Emperor’s garden in the Forbidden City (in Beijing) are wearing away the wonderful pebble paving.

Turfing the grand courtyard on the Palatine was wrong. But what should be done? To answer the question one needs historical and design judgment underpinned by a detailed knowledge of Roman planting and construction. But I am doubtful about any kind of restoration on such an important site.
Image of the Palatine courtesy Jeff, Jen and Travis

5 thoughts on “The prospects for an International Society for Garden Archaeology

  1. Kathryn Gleason

    Thank you for the input-we welcome all interest and thoughts. I am trained as a landscape architect, though I work primarily in garden archaeology. We need more landscape architects involved. Architects have long been present on archaeological excavations, engineers weigh in on water systems, bridges, dams. We need landscape architects to increase awareness from many angles about the nature of these built environments and how we should interpret and present them. Another good example, beyond those you have mentioned, is Pompeii. Focus on the collapses there is on the conservation of the walls, but if the partially excavated land is not graded to handle the water, it will all run to the foundations and causes these collapses. Our work on the great peristyle garden of the Villa Arianna shows that the Romans had a very refined sense of site engineering. It is our job to make ourselves heard–most do not even know what landscape architecture is, and think that everything was landscaping, putting plants into the natural ground. We are planning three parts of the Society of Garden Archaeology: 1) research; 2) professional; 3)public, not necessarily with those names.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    I agree with you, tenfold, and you would be most welcome if you would like to contribute to this blog. I too am a landscape architect.
    England is comparatively ‘advanced’ in the care of historic gardens but I find little to admire in what is done – and much to criticise. It is not that I want to be a killjoy critic of well-intentioned schemes. I just feel it necessary to speak plainly in the interests of things being done to a higher standard.

  3. Christine

    The verdant green romanticizes the ruins of the Roman palace in the way that the placing of ‘follies’ within the landscape added a mythological history to the English landscape. [ ]

    It was after returning from a stint as the Colonial Governor of Virginia that John Murray the Earl of Dunmore added a pineapple-shaped cupola to the upper floor of the summerhouse.
    [ ] I don’t believe it set the precedent for the big pineapple in Queensland. [ ]

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    I don’t think ‘folly’ is a useful word in the discussion of garden buildings: they were made for different reasons at different times. Some had no use; others were designed for specific uses. The Dunmore pineapple was an ornament to a garden wall, and a boast about the use of the garden space. Was the Queensland pineapple built for the same reason?

  5. Christine

    Yes and no.[ ] Yes, because both Dunmore and the owners of the Big Pineapple were growing pineapples. Although the Queensland pineapples are grown outdoors.

    However, I am guessing this particular pineapple has more to do with the origins of the classic commercial freeway ie, for the big texan steakhouse [ ] sign popularised in ‘Learning from Las Vegas’.

    While the size of the Dunmore pineappple can perhaps best be explained by John Murray’s connections with the ‘Old Dominion’?
    [ ]


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