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Pompeian Households: An Analysis of the Material Culture.

Pompeian Households: An Analysis of the Material Culture. By PENELOPE M. ALLISON. Cotson Institute of Archaeology Monographs, vol. 42. Los Angeles: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES, 2004. Pp. xvii + 255, illus. $40 (paper).

This volume represents the first large-scale study of domestic artifact assemblages from Pompeii. Penelope M. Allison has painstakingly combed through a tangle of excavation records to produce a database of objects recovered from thirty large houses. This information, in both monograph and digital form, constitutes a major contribution to the study of Pompeian houses, one that should push this subfield to question its oft-repeated mantras and to explore new directions. Adopting an approach "grounded in processual method," Allison deploys her data set "to present an overview of the patterns of spatial distribution of house contents" (p. xv) and thus to interrogate orthodoxies related to several issues--primarily the use of Pompeian domestic space and the formation processes of Pompeii's archaeological record. This analysis is conducted with Allison's customary rigor, and it certainly succeeds in complicating the issues at hand, yet at the same time it offers few new models to fill the voids it reveals.

Three initial chapters discuss evidence and methodology. Whereas texts from Rome and the experience of encountering empty houses on-site have steered study toward the planned uses of domestic space, artifactual evidence, Allison argues, can elucidate how houses were actually used. The following three chapters do the analytical heavy lifting, first considering interpretations of artifacts and furnishings (chapter four), then examining the database from two angles: on the basis of room-types (chapter five) and find-types (chapter six).

Allison expresses interest in "broad functional categories" of artifact use, such as "luxury, utilitarian, industrial, [and] personal" (p. 43), to determine the distribution of household activities. Consequently, while she accepts the traditional interpretation of most finds, she also singles out several misidentifications. Recesses in walls, for instance, take multiple forms and were not only for beds or couches; niches do not always demonstrate a religious function; and some vessels were more closely tied to ablution than food preparation. As this chapter suggests, Allison tends to favor making the negative case and exposing simplistic traditional explanations.

In her analysis of assemblages by room-type, Allison avoids the inherent circularity of the canonical nomenclature and instead lays out an architectural typology on the basis of room location, relative size, relationship to "through-routes," and fixtures. The rooms normally called tablina, for example, become "Open Rooms Leading to Gardens or Open-Sided Rooms opposite Main Entranceways." Perhaps necessarily cumbersome, this terminology invites a reexamination of assumptions, yet its purely architectural criteria at times conflate separate categories of rooms, such as decorated and undecorated closed rooms off atria, whose assemblages indeed document different activity patterns (pp. 71-76).

Most room-types in fact reveal quite mixed assemblages, rarely showing clear-cut uses. Rooms of Type 3, "Front Halls" conventionally called atria, for instance, show broad patterns of domestic and utilitarian furnishings, revealing themselves as key places for storage. Similarly, gardens and their ambulatories were simultaneously ostentatious and practical spaces, used for religious activities, domestic storage, and food production and preparation. In sum, the artifactual data demonstrate that the reality of the use of domestic space was significantly more complicated than the picture presented in texts (a point made relentlessly in chapter seven). Note especially that while some parts of the house were intended to be formal and impressive, Pompeians did not hide utilitarian workings out of visitors' sight.

Allison's consideration of the spatial distribution of domestic activities develops this conclusion further, making clear that nineteenth-century ideologies of "separate spheres" (still prevalent in some analogical approaches to Roman houses) do not apply. Food-related tasks, for example, are widely scattered: finds indicate that food and dinnerware were stored toward the house's front, while preparation and consumption generally occurred at its rear. In general, Allison concedes that whatever picture we can now paint must have the broadest strokes--until we understand more about the specific uses of the artifacts themselves, no "spatial-functional relationship" can easily be established (p. 153).

The final major chapter employs the same dataset to address Pompeii's formation processes and abandonment. Allison's close work with assemblages enables her to detect intense changes from patterns of habitual use, such as hoarding, looting, and salvaging. Such detailed discussions undermine the "Pompeii Premise" that Vesuvius' eruption hermetically sealed the city in a "frozen moment." So too does her analysis of building activity, which critiques scholars' tendency to pin any destruction on the recorded earthquake of 62 C.E. or on the 79 C.E. eruption. By contrast, Allison makes a compelling case for a more complex abandonment process, one involving ongoing seismic activity and displaying varying patterns of damage, repair, changing room use, and deterioration.

Allison's own words provide a fitting summary of the book's largely corrective nature:
 The seemingly limited results attained through analysis of artifact
 assemblages, however, should not be dismissed as uninformative.
 Rather, they should provide a basis from which we both question our
 assumptions about domestic universals and material culture consumption
 and critically assess our interpretations of textual information, its
 explicit relevance, and its universality within a diverse Roman world.
 (p. 157)

Allison is right to acknowledge the few concrete conclusions of this study; to this point, the primary benefit of the new household assemblage data has been a vigorous interrogation of traditional conceptions of Pompeian houses. Yet her efforts open additional avenues of inquiry in this subfield and beyond. The evidence of artifacts, to take an obvious example, can now fruitfully join domestic decoration and architecture in the thorough analysis of domestic environments. This dataset also provides a measuring-stick for a much-needed investigation of smaller houses at Pompeii, where correspondingly smaller budgets required interesting deviations from large-house patterns. Finally, for domestic contexts elsewhere in the ancient world, Allison offers both baseline data for household assemblages and a valuable model that counterbalances anecdotal, overweeningly textual approaches.

Note: though the book makes scarce mention of it, a companion website ( publishes the data in a user-friendly format, which admirably allows others to make their own inquiries. The development of a similar interface (also at for Nicholas Cahill's independent study of the household assemblages of Olynthus promises another opportunity for examining domestic activities from the ancient world. See N. Cahill, Household and City Organization at Olynthus (New Haven, 2002).


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Author:Hartnett, Jeremy
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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