June 13, 2009
What I’ve been doing to start out is reading some books which will help me to determine how to approach my topic, what questions I’m interested in asking, and what data to collect. My goal in approaching this thesis is to integrate classics, archaeology, anthropology, history, etc. The field of classical archaeology tends to have a bad reputation, so I’m going to do what I can to include better techniques and modern concerns, as some of my favorite classicists have been doing recently.
Penelope Allison is one of the people doing her part to make classical archaeology more respectable (especially in the eyes of other archaeologists). Almost all of my big criticisms of the work I’d read before her are discussed in her 2004 book Pompeian Households: An Analysis of the Material Culture, which I finished reading last week.
A big issue taken on by Allison in this work, as well as her 2001 article from the American Journal of Archaeology, Using the Material and Written Sources: Turn of the millennium approaches to Roman domestic space, is that of the reliability of textual sources. Classicists have, for a long time, considered Latin literature to be the only legitimate source of information about Roman life, while archaeological evidence suffered from the “hand-maiden to history” affliction. This idea that archaeology can only confirm or refute written sources, only recently left behind in the similar field of historical archaeology, must be thoroughly dealt with by classical archaeologists as well. Archaeology can help us to understand things that we just don’t see in the literature. and, as Allison shows in her book, the information from Roman texts does not necessarily correspond to what we see in the ground. For instance, we may assume that the large, ornate front rooms seen in many Pompeian houses are atria, as discussed by Vitruvius, and were thus used for social ritual (i.e. salutatio) exclusively. Finds made in these rooms, however, frequently consist of mundane domestic material such as evidence for weaving, and even industrial/commerical evidence such as amphorae (which were used mostly to contain products for sale and shipping). It is important for classical archaeologists to use the available material evidence to obtain new and relevant conclusions, rather that making assumptions based on Latin literature (or analogy to modern life, another huge problem).
She also takes on the “Pompeii premise,” the reason for so many sites around the world being called “the Pompeii of ________” (just google that phrase if you don’t believe me). This is the idea, which originated very early in the history of pompeian study, that since Pompeii was covered by volcanic ash and abandoned, that it represents a “frozen in time” glimpse at day-to-day Roman life (as Allison points out in her conclusions, “frozen” is an interesting term to use for Pompeii…”). Pompeii is not a snap-shot of the past. As laid out in Pompeian Households, Pompeii was in flux after the earthquake of 62 CE (and possibly several earthquakes from that date to 79 CE), and residents most likely returned to attempt to retrieve valuables. What should have been even more obvious is that people were not caught instantaneously off-guard by Vesuvius; the Pompeii captured for us to see was in the midst of panicked evacuation. While these ideas should not be taken to say that research at Pompeii is pointless, they should be considered when one is doing work on the site as possible explanations and factors.
What Allison does in this book, to try to overcome the bad conclusions that can come from too many assumptions, is to examine carefully every “type” of room (out of22) from the 30 atrium-style houses in the sample. The types are based on position and relationship with other rooms. Thus, all so-called atria fall in the same entry-hall type, but triclinia are separated into two types along with some rooms generally called other names. She then looks at the materials and characteristics of each type to try to determine use, activities, etc.
I hope to use her work extensively, as part of her project is an online database of the data and plans she collected for all 30 houses, thus freeing me from extremely difficult research (for THIS section of the thesis). I will also use her room categories. My focus, however, will be on the individual house level; I want to chose several case studies from each house and analyze the entire house together (as opposed to comparing all of the entranceways or kitchens).