Pompeii – Excavations (1994 – 1998)

Excavation below the lapilli

The principal objective of past excavation in Pompeii has been to remove the blanket of volcanic ash and lapilli to reveal the remains of the city as it was at the time of the eruption in AD79. The extraordinary preservation of buildings with their frescoes and pavements has severely limited the opportunities for investigating the history of the city, but the survival of the city wall, for example, is a constant, visual reminder of the great antiquity of the city. While much can be learnt of relative change through time from the exacting study of the structures which survive above ground level, it is much more difficult either to define an absolute chronology of those developments, or to begin to determine changing use of space through time.

Excavation of the house and bar of Amarantus

The House and Bar of Amarantus (I.9.11-12), first uncovered in 1952-1953, but then effectively abandoned, offered a valuable opportunity for testing out existing ideas about their history. The absence of pavements of any kind in the atrium of house 12 and the ‘garden’ of house 11 offered the advantage of larger areas to excavate below the AD79 surface in order to understand better their earlier histories.

The complex consists of two units, which seem to have been connected throughout their development. Door no.11 leads directly to a masonry shop counter or bar, decorated with pieces of coloured marble; behind the bar are a couple of small service rooms, leading to a large garden area, partly surrounded by the blocked-in brick columns of a peristyle. Door no.12 leads to what should be the residential quarters, a standard arrangement of narrow entrance (fauces), central atrium (2), with a tablinum (5) beyond it, acting as the transition to the peristyle garden (8) at the back. Around the peristyle are the only decorated rooms of the house: the tablinum itself, a cubiculum (7), and the triclinium (10). All three are decorated in the ‘fourth style’ typical of the final decades of the city.

Condition of the house in AD79
Before commencing excavation below the AD79 surface it was possible to learn more about the condition of the two houses at the time of the eruption. Not all the volcanic material had been removed in the original excavation and further work in one room revealed that it had been used as a stable. The remains of a mule with a dog at its feet were found collapsed against a manger in one of the front rooms of house 12. In the atrium behind were the remains of amphorae which had carried wine from Crete, probably for sale at the bar in house 11. In the garden to the rear of the bar examination of the ink writing on empty amphorae revealed the name of the owner, SEXTUS POMPEIUS AMARANTUS. Pollen evidence told us much about the (poor) condition of the houses and stable at the time of the eruption. To give one example, the fodder or bedding for the mule contained large amounts of walnut pollen.

Date of construction of house 12

By conventional wisdom, the techniques and materials used in the building of house 12, such as the squared, ashlar blocks of Sarno stone (opus quadratum) making up the façade, and the framework construction in opus Africanum of the internal walls, suggested a history which might go back to the fourth century BC. Excavation of the entire atrium area throws the standard dating into question. While evidence of fourth century habitation is there, it belongs to layers far earlier than the foundation of the house walls as they stand. These cannot be earlier than the mid-to-late first century BC. Evidence for this is provided by the presence of particular types of pottery, such as the red, glossy, Italian sigillata (table wares), which replace the black, Campanian table wares, and become established in the second half of the first century BC.

But though excavation contradicted the apparently early date of the walls that stand, it demonstrated, equally surprisingly, that occupation of the area goes back far earlier that predicted by the usual chronology of expansion of the city. Pottery dating back to the sixth century is found extensively, including a fragment in Etruscan lettering bearing the end of an Etruscan personal name. Foundation trenches filled with pieces of lava provide evidence of a rectilinear building on the same alignment as the Roman street grid as early as the mid-sixth century BC. This is the first structure of this date to be excavated in Pompeii and it raises the important question of the origin of the city and its street plan. Although it is generally believed that the archaic city was confined to the south-western (Altstadt) quarter, the evidence from 1.9.12 argues for a more comprehensive archaic plan, possibly of Etruscan origin.

History of construction of house 11

In contrast, the evidence of numerous alterations to the fabric of house 11, which is built largely of mortared rubble, suggested a complicated history of change to its internal space. Here, excavation below the AD79 levels allows a better understanding of the significance of changes evident in the upstanding walls. Excavation at the front of the house shows the complexity of these changes. In the case of the bar counter it is clear that this was only constructed in the last decade or two before the eruption. This reminds us that any particular function associated with a house as it was in AD79 may have been short-lived. In AD79 the garden area (5) was used for storing empty amphorae from the bar. But it was also possible to demonstrate by taking casts of root cavities that a variety of plants were growing there, including some vines and one well-established tree. However, it was evident that this final garden surface was about half a metre above the level presupposed by the brick columns of the peristyle. Deeper excavation into and below the garden of house 11 revealed important evidence of domestic sacrifice. Careful examination of the contents of a cist which was constructed early in the first century AD showed that it had been used to contain the cremated remains of at least three lambs and seventeen mature cockerels represented by the remains of the less edible parts, such as skull, wing and limb bone fragments. Associated with these bones were the charred remains of stone-pine nuts, figs and dates. The character of this assemblage suggests the careful interment of the remains of household sacrifice, perhaps over a number of years until the final burial of the cist by the dumping of soil to create the garden in the mid-first century AD.At lower levels, numerous other features emerged, particularly a series of demolished walls indicating previous structures beneath the garden, several cess-pits linked to latrines of the first century AD, and a series of other pits dug to recover building sand for the construction of martared walls. These pits were exceptional rich in finds (broken vessels, lamps, loom-weights etc), and in organic materials revealing the changing diet of the inhabitants.


More on the Pompeii Project:

Archival Research and Finds

Pompeii – Recording and Analysis

Pompeii – Excavations (1994 – 1998)