August 18, 2003: The House of the Surgeon
The House of the Surgeon was brought to light when Spaniard Francesco La Vega cleared the central zone of our city block of ash and lapilli in the 1770s. Characterised by its large limestone blocks and architectural layout, the structurally impressive house captured the interest of early visitors and scholars alike. It was in these early days of clearance that a set of sophisticated Roman surgical instruments was found in the house. Questions of who may have once lived here were seemingly answered--this was the House of the Surgeon!
Of course, we can't be certain a surgeon actually lived in the house. Our research is more concerned with the archaeological importance of the property. It has captivated academic interest for generations; the House of the Surgeon features in textbooks on Roman domestic architecture as a key example of an early house type. We want to know when the house was built, its original layout, and how the space operated and related with neighboring properties. Now in our second season of excavating the House of the Surgeon, we're drawing closer to some of the answers. As we proceed, however, more and more questions arise.
We've continued this season to reopen trenches originally excavated in the 1920s by the Italian archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri (see our 2002 field notes). Maiuri conducted excavations in the House of the Surgeon in a bid to discover the original layout of the building and its foundation date. His work in the central courtyard, or atrium, led him to believe the house was the oldest in the city to remain standing in A.D. 79, and he dated its construction to the fourth century B.C. This foundation date for the House of the Surgeon has been fundamental to the study of Italian domestic architecture. Our present stratigraphic excavations are greatly improving our understanding of the history of this house and the development of Pompeian houses in general.
Stephanie Dawson (Ohio Wesleyan University), who has been re-excavating one of Maiuri's trenches, has uncovered one of the crucial construction trenches originally dug to build the house. The material found in these foundations, such as datable pieces of pottery and coins, give a much more precise idea of when the House of the Surgeon was built. A coin possibly dating to the third century B.C. has been found, though we haven't yet cleaned it to properly identify its type. In any case, it's clear the House of the Surgeon was constructed considerably later than traditionally thought.
Maiuri's 1920s excavations were also concerned with the original layout of the house. At some point in the history of the building, a service wing was attached to the house which included a kitchen (1 on plan), some storage space (6 on plan) and a toilet (3 on plan). Maiuri believed the house had originally been symmetrical and the partition wall destroyed to open up space for the service wing. We've discovered in the triclinium room that the partition wall never existed and that the original house already occupied the space that would later become service quarters.
Apart from the layout and foundation date for the House of the Surgeon, we're also very interested in understanding the social history of the house. Several wall paintings illustrate that the house was once grand and well-decorated. A wall decoration of a seated woman who is herself painting was found during the early excavations in one of the dining rooms. The painting was removed and now resides in the Archaeological Museum in Naples. During our 2002 excavation season we uncovered a number of fragments of high-quality decoration in the house.
While it's clear that the house was splendid and suitably appointed for much of its existence, we're less sure that it remained so leading up to the A.D. 79 destruction. In the final years of Pompeii, the House of the Surgeon seems to have undergone considerable repair work. The floor between the atrium and tablinum had fallen into a large collapsed cistern, wooden posts were cut into the floors of many rooms to possibly support a damaged roof, and one room was used solely as a lime-storage tank. These pieces of information suggest the House of the Surgeon had fallen into a poor state leading up to the eruption of A.D. 79. It is a story which contrasts significantly with what we know of its neighbor, the House of the Vestals, which was blossoming into one of the more luxurious homes in the area in the final years of the city.
Our findings also highlight the level of complexity in excavating an entire city block. From one side of the wall to the other, we find a whole new set of social and economic circumstances. We're still far from understanding many of these archaeological mysteries but remain ever hopeful that future seasons of excavations will provide us with information to discover the answers and also to raise new and interesting questions about the House of the Surgeon, our insula at VI.1, and Pompeii as a city.