Ancient Cities Archeological Lessons

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Archaeological Lessons: Gardens and perfumery making in ancient Pompeii

Ancient Pompeii was a bustling and metropolitan city of its time until it was devastated and buried completely on a fateful night in August 79 A.D. by the eruption of Vesuvius. Many believed that it was fate or the revenge of the Gods, as ancient Pompeii was said to have been a place of pleasures; strong indications of this are shown in the art and artefacts that have been unearthed from the buried remains of the city.

Gardens played a dominant role in the Pompeiian way of life. As well as elaborate styles of gardens of the rich, those with smaller houses also had gardens which were used to grow a large variety of flowers and herbs for medicinal and culinary purposes, as well as for ornamental. The soil around Pompeii was rich and fertile for growing a large variety of flora and fauna. In fact, the south side of Pompeii had many styles of houses with terraced gardens, due to the richness of the lava slopes on which they were built. Archaeologists have discovered that trees and plants such as chestnuts, figs and pears were prevalent in the gardens. Many gardens included a number of water features too and elaborate fountains have been unearthed in many of the private houses and gardens.

There were also plants and flowers grown which could be used for perfumery making, a large part of Pompeiian society. Cheaper products could be produced using local plants, rather than those imported from more distant, exotic climes. Although no written literature has been found of records of this time, it is known that perfume making was evident in Pompeii as there has been evidence uncovered in the excavation of Pompeii of perfumery shops and equipment. Ancient frescoes tell some of the story. In the House of Vettii, one of the now well known houses excavated, there is a fresco depicting cupids as perfumers.

In addition to perfumes, women would have many of the similar beauty products' which the modern day woman uses today in some form or another creams, lotions and masks to name a few.

Amongst the plants and flowers we know were used in Pompeii were rose, fennel, myrrh and incense. These ingredients were used together to make a perfume called Rhodinum. Another perfume called mirtum-laurum was made up of lily, laurel, myrtle, myrrh and a few other ingredients. Other perfumes which were known to be used in Pompeii were Melinon, Susinum and Iasminum. Apart from their pleasant smells', a number of the perfumes used would also have therapeutic properties as they contained a number of the plants and flowers which we use in aromatherapy today. Indeed, it has been recorded that Pompeiians used plants such as Chamomile for therapeutic purposes, much as we use essential oils today in aromatherapy.

Various other plants and flowers were used to make up scents for laundry, to treat ulcers and to combat sweat.

Today, as tourists mill around the ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii they can experience the gardens and plants of that ancient time due to a re-creation of a garden growing in a place where there once was one thousands of years ago.

Pompeii kept these secrets for centuries until the excavations began in earnest under the reign of King Charles III in the 1700s. Today, a huge part of the city has been unearthed but I suspect Pompeii still holds some secrets and archaeological lessons we have yet to re-discover.


Amery, Colin, Curran Brian Jnr, The Lost World of Pompeii' 2002 Getty Publications, Los Angles, CA, USA

Giordano, Carlo, Casale, Angelandrea Profumi, Ungenti e Acconciature in Pompei Antica' (Perfumes, Ungents and Hairstyles in Pompeii) Bardi Editore, Roma

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