August 5, 2002
The Surgeon and the Virgins
The House of the Surgeon has been traditionally recognized as the oldest house in Pompeii, a distinction which relies upon the large stone masonry of the house. In general, Pompeii's buildings are made with rubble walls, a technique today called opus incertum. The House of the Surgeon's massive blocks, which withstood the A.D. 79 eruption and several earthquakes (modern as well as ancient), contrast sharply with the rest of the buildings throughout the city, giving the house unparalleled presence and beauty.
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Though the majority of Pompeii's buildings have names relating more to modern-era tourism and the special occasions of the initial clearances, the House of the Surgeon was named for a set of surgical instruments found in one of its dining rooms. The name enhances its appeal to Pompeii's visitors, who imagine a once-vibrant city bustling with merchants, rich nobles, blacksmiths, gladiators, and their surgeon. Modern preconceptions about doctors have promoted the idea that the House of the Surgeon was the impressive residence of a wealthy and well-respected man.
Just next door lived the Vestals--or so reported Pompeii's first tour leaders, and the myth continues to circulate among misguided vacationers. The House of the Vestals was so-named for a painting in one of its dining rooms. The image showed Venus at her toilet; but a wall painting of a goddess of love and sex could easily be reinterpreted as one of a beautiful, wealthy, respected and even virginal woman, most notably a Vestal Virgin. The 16 Vestal Virgins were an elite group of priestesses, the guarantors of the Roman state. At age six they were individually selected from Rome's wealthiest families to protect the sacred flame that represented the soul of the city and its empire. If any one of them neglected her duties, or her chastity, she was disgraced, dismissed, and buried alive. Identifying this grand Pompeian house as the residence of Rome's priestesses gave it flair and seductive charm. The attribution also justified the house's luxuriousness--its sprawl, its fountains, pools, and bath, its two atria and two peristyles, and its impressive frescoes and mosaics. It was this house, this legacy, that so captivated the earliest visitors to Pompeii 200 years ago.
Today, the Vestal's walls have crumbled, the floors have cracked, and the gleaming blue-and-red frescoes have faded into a dull mortar-gray. The Bourbons hacked out the more impressive mosaic floors and attractive wall paintings. Bombs dropped by the Allied Forces in the Second World War knocked out brilliant wall paintings and half the atrium's marble flooring, while shrapnel shattered the open-air waterfall and pool. Today's tall cedar trees, surging dramatically towards the heavens, continue to send their ever-expanding roots through the peristyle's floor and pools. For two centuries now, "X was here" has been carved into the walls in a variety of languages and hands, as modern vandals seek their own sense of ownership of this ancient city. Weathered with time and tourism, the House of the Vestals has become the nearly forgotten strut of its more alluring neighbor.
The AAPP's comprehensive investigation and preservation plans have revived interest in the house and its neighbors. The evidence revealed in the archaeological imprint counters popular misconceptions and modern assumptions regarding both the House of the Surgeon and the House of the Vestals. Survey of the standing architecture and flooring in both houses has proven that in the final phase the House of the Vestals dwarfed its more modest and unassuming neighbor. The luxuriousness of the House of the Vestals has already been discussed. In comparison, the architecture and decoration of the House of the Surgeon is hardly noteworthy. A dull gray, local stone called tufa forms the Surgeon's unimpressive impluvium, while black-and-white mosaic flooring seems to be restricted to two rooms: the tablinum and a cubiculum. Given the lack of space and, apparently, resources for even just one proper peristyle, there is instead a shallow garden stretching behind the tablinum.
Is there a Doctor in the House?
Socio-cultural considerations complement our understanding of the two houses. Roman culture relished in conspicuous consumption, the exuberant and pretentious display of personal wealth, resources, and lineage. Large limestone blocks may have been an expensive building material, but as the core of the building, they would have been covered in plaster immediately after construction. In other words, the investment in stone construction provided invisible results and did not contribute to the family's public repute.
As for the surgeon himself, the presence of surgical implements in a house does not necessarily signal the presence of a surgeon. Medical instruments have been found all throughout the ancient city (27 known sites), including shops, dwellings, a workshop, and the amphitheater. Who owned them? The literary record (notably the authors Cato, of the second century B.C., and Columella, of the first century A.D.) tells us that the head of a household, the pater familias, was generally responsible for the physical health of his wife, children, relatives, slaves, and animals. For such, he would have had his own set of surgical implements, from scalpels and forceps, to probes and spatulas, to cataract needles and specula.
Proper doctors in Pompeii, on the other hand, ranged from midwives to trained Greek slaves to independent free-born doctors. One of the latter advertised his expertise in large red letters scrawled across the facade of his modest house: "A. Pumponianus Magionus Medicus." In the literary record, doctors such as this are generally despised and scorned as charlatans and hacks--at least in a tradition left by cynical and conservative self-consciously Roman authors (such as Cato, as well as Pliny the Younger and Martial, both of the first century A.D.). The discovery of surgical implements in the House of the Surgeon, therefore, tells us little about the archaeology of the house or its inhabitants and their place in society. The only way to learn such information is through comprehensive excavation.
Though digging always seems the most sensationalized aspect of archaeology--unearthing that millennia-old find from its long-forgotten tomb--digging is only one small aspect of the process. The process of excavation today involves thorough documentation and scholarly interpretation of the standing structures, the layers of dirt in the substructures, and the ecofacts and artifacts found therein. Our field notes from last season discussed the AAPP's multifaceted approach to archaeology in VI,1 and in particular the importance of studying the ceramics and biological materials we find. Equally important are the less glamorized aspects such as floor survey, walls analysis, pottery washing, and pottery, which members of our project tackle enthusiastically. (See the journals.)
Keeping up with the Jones's... or not.
Even at this early point in the analysis and excavation of the House of the Surgeon, we are able to trace its life-history and compare it to that of the House of the Vestals. The difference in the final phase is clear. The House of the Vestals was a grand and extravagant house sprawling across an extensive stretch of land. Colorful marbles and expensive frescoes adorned the floors and walls. The House of the Surgeon was more modest in scale and decoration. It was half the size of its neighbor. Its floors were predominantly cocciopesto, and they decorated a house of limited architectural pretension.
This is the story at the end. Through excavation, we are now learning the story from the beginning.
The two houses, side-by-side, demonstrate divergent histories from comparable origins. When the two were first constructed, they occupied similarly sized plots. With the commercial revolution of the second century, however, the House of the Vestals began to expand. Rooms were added to the side and back of the House of the Vestals, and a small house was built immediately to the north. Industrial and commercial structures were built to the north and east of the house, and it is possible that the revenue these new buildings generated was fed back to the proprietor of the House of the Vestals. Within a century, this small house to the north was incorporated into the House of the Vestals, along with its own northern neighbor. The House of the Vestals was now completely cut-off from the commercial properties, and its internal design and decoration were refurbished to include such posh elements as a private bath.
This expansion and extravagance as early as the first century B.C. reflect a citywide pattern: the sharpening of economic inequality within space and perhaps within society in general. In fact, as the owner of the House of the Vestals continued to prosper through the first century A.D., he spared no expense in updating his dwelling's sophistication: a new and more elaborate bath complex, fountains, a pool, new floors, freshly plastered walls, and a lot of marble. The renovations must have been an impressive and pricey engineering, structural, and redecorating feat. Meanwhile, the House of the Surgeon, just next door, seems to have remained almost the same size as it had been in its earliest phase. Though it added a service wing (including a kitchen), the House of the Surgeon never acquired the grand scale of the House of the Vestals. Its final-phase tufa impluvium and those unimpressive cocciopesto floors underline the architectural, economic, and social discrepancies apparent from one house to the next.
An Urban Community
The House of the Vestals was certainly one of the most sophisticated and impressive houses in Pompeii at the time of Vesuvius' eruption. In scale and decoration, the House of the Surgeon is a good example of a medium-sized Pompeian house. More than just the families and the slaves of the Vestals and the Surgeon lived and slept in VI,1. Workshops, factories, and bars surround the two houses. In these shops, the city's workers spent their days toiling in the front rooms and their nights sleeping in backrooms or second stories. VI,1 thus provides an excellent cross-section of urban residences--from the wealthiest to the most meager.
The differences between the two houses in the insula help us gauge different levels of status and wealth in a limited range of society. Our work in the rest of the insula helps us measure the differences across a broader range of Pompeii's population. In these spaces that fuse the domestic and the commercial-industrial, there are no mosaic floors. Instead a spray of plaster or a packed earthen surface covered the ground. The artifacts and ecofacts we have recovered show the same sort of division of space. In the House of the Vestals, we have found such costly items as gold-plated glass, beads, and a golden chariot intaglio. The bars, inn, and soap factory, on the other hand, have yielded broken pieces of mundane pottery.
Relatively few coins have turned up in the residential quarters, but in our excavations last year we found over 250 coins in the industrial and commercial areas. While coinage is an indicator of wealth, the coins were of low value and indicate the everyday transactions taking place in these areas. Expensive spices such as pepper and cumin, which seasoned fancy dishes, tell us that the people eating in the House of the Vestals had a costly and varied diet. The bits of bone, shell, and fish scale from the surrounding areas (excluding the House of the Surgeon) indicate older animals, fewer spices, and a duller palate.
Over the course of the next several years of excavation, we will track the changes and developments in the House of the Surgeon's use of space, design, artifacts, and ecofacts. Upon completion, we will have a scientific understanding of the house's history and a better sense of its relationship to the House of the Vestals and Pompeian buildings in general.