In Ancient Pompeii, Trash and Tombs Went Hand in Hand

Related Articles

Related Articles

Pompeii Forum : Wiki Commons

Trash and tombs went hand in hand in ancient Pompeii. That’s according to UC research that provides new insights into the daily life of that city before the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.

Cemeteries in ancient Pompeii were “mixed-use developments” with a variety of purposes that included serving as an appropriate site to toss out the trash.

 

That’s according to findings from University of Cincinnati research at Pompeii to be presented Jan. 7, 2012, at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America by UC doctoral student Allison Emmerson. She has worked on site as part of UC’s Pompeii Archaeological Research Project.

See a complete list of UC research to be presented at the 2012 Archaeological Institute of America annual meeting.

 

New research encounters held long assumptions:

Emmerson’s research counters long-held assumptions about how and why tombs around Pompeii have been found piled high with ancient trash deposits in and around the structures, including butchered and charred animal bones, dog and equine bones, broken pottery and broken architectural material.

These garbage materials in cemeteries were found within and alongside tomb structures, even those of one story which were preserved nearly as they existed in AD 79 because of the thick, hardened coating of ash and lapilli (small stones) that covered and preserved them due to the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius.

The 19th century excavators at Pompeii assumed that the excavated tombs filled with ancient refuse and garbage (as well as covered in graffiti) must have fallen into decline and disrepair almost two decades prior to the AD 79 catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius. They (and later excavators) theorized  that Pompeii’s tombs were covered in garbage due, in part, to a powerful AD 62 earthquake at Pompeii and that the tombs were abandoned and neglected after the earthquake as the city must have been in decline and inhabitants focused on more pragmatic concerns..

It was a theory, according to Emmerson, that was likely adopted because the 19th century researchers working at Pompeii (as well as later excavators) would have found it unthinkable that cemeteries were places appropriate for tossing out the trash.

However, recent scholarship of the last 15 years or so has proven that Pompeii had rebounded after the earthquake of AD 62 and was in a period of rejuvenation by AD 79 as an important city in one of the wealthiest regions of the Roman Empire.

“Which,” according to UC’s Emmerson, “Left the question of why so much trash was found in the cemeteries. These were not abandoned locales as of AD 79 . People had not abandoned the maintenance of their burial spaces and structures any more than they had abandoned public spaces.”

The ancients held a casual view of trash collection:

As Emmerson began excavations at Pompeii in 2009, as part of a long-term team of UC faculty and students working there, she noted the placement of Pompeii’s tombs – located not in secluded park-like areas set off by a fence (as are our cemeteries today) but prominently placed along well-used, high-traffic roads and thoroughfares of the time.

She also noted what we would consider an extremely “casual” treatment of trash and waste.

“For instance,” she explained, “I excavated a room in a house where the cistern (for storing drinking water and water for washing) was placed between two waste pits. Both waste pits were found completely packed with trash in the form of broken household pottery, animal bones and other food waste, like grape seeds and olive pits.”

In addition, researchers have commonly found that garbage was casually deposited on the floor of homes, in the streets and alleys outside of homes (sometimes at significant layered depths) and at the urban edge, along city walls (in large quantities over time).

In fact, there is no evidence that Pompeii had any centrally managed system for garbage disposal, and so, it’s likely people lived in very close proximity to their refuse as an accepted part of life.

And Pompeii’s cemeteries and tombs were simply another place for trash – as were almost any part of a home’s interior or exterior as well as alleys, streets and major roadways.

Tombs and cemeteries were certainly considered appropriate for the placement of “advertisements” of the time, everything from political “vote for me” material, promotions for sporting events or boasts of sexual conquest.

“In general, when a Roman was confronted with death, he or she was more concerned with memory than with the afterlife. Individuals wanted to be remembered, and the way to do that was a big tomb in a high-traffic area. In other words, these tombs and cemeteries were never meant to be places for quiet contemplation. Tombs were display – very much a part of every day life, definitely not set apart, clean or quiet. They were part of the ‘down and dirty’ in life.”

When it comes to why so much trash is found at tombs at Pompeii, Emmerson added that her research findings contrast with the theories of early excavators at Pompeii because those first excavators couldn’t conceive of trash placed at tombs as just a normal part of everyday life since its was so foreign to their (and our own) value systems. It seems, she said, so disrespectful by modern standards; however, evidence within the walls of Pompeii shows that the people lived close to their waste, and we can’t be sure that trash in tombs would have been seen as a problem.

“And frankly,” she added, “The early excavators at Pompeii just weren’t that interested in the trash and what it might tell us about daily life and cultural attitudes.”

Funding:

Emmerson’s research was supported by the Semple Classics Fund at UC, a bequest of Louise Taft Semple.
HeritageDaily Archaeology News Press Release – News for Archeology by Archaeologists

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

The Great Wall of Gorgan

The Great Wall of Gorgan, also called the "The Red Snake" or “Alexander's Barrier” is the second-longest defensive wall (after the Great Wall of China), which ran for 121 miles from a narrowing between the Caspian Sea north of Gonbade Kavous (ancient Gorgan, or Jorjan in Arabic) and the Pishkamar mountains of north-eastern Iran.

Aelia Capitolina – Roman Jerusalem

Aelia Capitolina was a Roman colony, constructed after the siege of 70 AD during the First Jewish-Roman War, when the city of Jerusalem and the Second Temple on Temple Mount was destroyed.

Wild Birds as Offerings to the Egyptian Gods

Millions of ibis and birds of prey mummies, sacrificed to the Egyptian gods Horus, Ra or Thoth, have been discovered in the necropolises of the Nile Valley.

Karahundj – The Ancient Speaking Stones

Karahundj, also called Carahunge and Zorats Karer is an ancient stone complex, constructed on a mountain plateau in the Syunik Province of Armenia.

Palaeontologists Establish Spinosaurus Was Real Life ‘River Monster’

A discovery of more than a thousand dinosaur teeth, by a team of researchers from the University of Portsmouth, proves beyond reasonable doubt that Spinosaurus, the giant predator made famous by the movie Jurassic Park III as well as the BBC documentary Planet Dinosaur was an enormous river-monster.

Archaeology Uncovers Infectious Disease Spread – 4000 Years Ago

New bioarchaeology research from a University of Otago PhD candidate has shown how infectious diseases may have spread 4000 years ago, while highlighting the dangers of letting such diseases run rife.

Buhen – The Sunken Egyptian Fortress

Buhen was an ancient Egyptian settlement and fortress, located on the West bank of the Nile in present-day Sudan.

The Modhera Sun Temple

The Sun Temple is an ancient Hindu temple complex located on a latitude of 23.6° (near Tropic of Cancer) on the banks of the Pushpavati river at Modhera in Gujarat, India.

Popular stories

The Secret Hellfire Club and the Hellfire Caves

The Hellfire Club was an exclusive membership-based organisation for high-society rakes, that was first founded in London in 1718, by Philip, Duke of Wharton, and several of society's elites.

Port Royal – The Sodom of the New World

Port Royal, originally named Cagway was an English harbour town and base of operations for buccaneers and privateers (pirates) until the great earthquake of 1692.

Matthew Hopkins – The Real Witch-Hunter

Matthew Hopkins was an infamous witch-hunter during the 17th century, who published “The Discovery of Witches” in 1647, and whose witch-hunting methods were applied during the notorious Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts.

Did Corn Fuel Cahokia’s Rise?

A new study suggests that corn was the staple subsistence crop that allowed the pre-Columbian city of Cahokia to rise to prominence and flourish for nearly 300 years.