Buried under a pile of literary pumice. A PhD on Pompeii

Pompeian books. OK there are some less 'academic' titles in there too.

Pompeian books. OK there are some less ‘academic’ titles in there too.
Photo S Hay

I am a field archaeologist (I write this to remind myself more than anyone) and although I find myself sitting at a desk buried under a mass of books, off-prints and scribbled notes (I am very much in the paper archaeology camp when it comes to research) it is only because I spent four years collecting data in the field that I now find myself inside, writing it up as a PhD.

Oh, and that “field” happened to be Pompeii.


Photo S Hay

The site has always resonated with people and no more so than now as the exhibition at the British Museum in London on ‘The Life and Death of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ (to rightly give it it’s full title and not squeeze it down to ‘The Pompeii Exhibition’) has caused a massive resurgence of interest in the Vesuvian cities.

UK television has been awash with programmes detailing the fate of both cities, but in particular, Pompeii. It was nothing short of miraculous that in one documentary you didn’t see the filming of another in the background, so crowded did the site become with Pompeian pundits. Suddenly, experts or not, people had something to say and everyone was listening. It’s a fortuitous time to be studying Pompeii.

I can smugly say I have not jumped on the most recent Pompeian bandwagon. I just jumped on one that was passing in 1997 when I was employed by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, the then director of The British School at Rome, to come and work on his Pompeii Project.

Just looking at a wall - wasn't trusted with context sheets in the early days!

Just looking at a wall – wasn’t trusted with context sheets in the early days!


The project studied the life of an insula – a block of 9 Roman houses half way between the forum and the amphitheatre on the via dell’ Abbondanza. It’s not a particularly pretty block of houses and certainly was not filled with the wealthiest of proprietors but this was the point. The project aimed to explore the non-elite life of Romans in Pompeii. The archaeology of this level of Roman society was much understudied at the outset of our project with the majority of research concentrating on the major public monuments and luxurious private houses and villas. We were looking at the common people. Integrated into the project was a study of all recorded finds from the excavations in the 1950s carried out by Dr. Joanne Berry.

One of my study houses during excavations in the 1950s Photo courtesy of Soprintendenza di Pompeii

One of my study houses during excavations in the 1950s
Photo courtesy of Soprintendenza di Pompeii

My research involved the design and implementation of a system to record standing buildings. This then forms the basis for the chronological analysis of a block of houses with a view to understanding the phases of development of a group of houses through time. Each wall (and they have 2 sides lest you forget) and floor surface was analysed stratigraphically using contexts, all 2585 of them, as you would in stratigraphic excavation. By putting walls and floors together to make rooms, and rooms together to make houses you can complete the jigsaw of the insula to reveal its current form but along the way, witness the changes in property divisions, the redesigning of internal spaces, and even the small repairs to cracks in the walls.

This may sound cold and remote but once you get to the desk stage, you get to see the small neighbourhood as a whole; like peeking into a large living dolls house. You get to see the transformations that the community underwent, the wrangles with neighbours over the heights of adjoining walls, the expansion of the successful drinking establishment, the vulgar scribbled words of a graffito by a cheeky neighbour, the mundane chore of an individual who perhaps grudgingly fixed the leaky pipe, and the general Smith’s keeping up with the Jones’ in terms of decorative fashions. It’s not just looking at walls, bricks and mortar (but I did do that. A lot. And when I say a lot, I mean it) but its about getting to grips with the inhabitants and the people who built the walls in the first place. And second. Well, and third and fourth places if wishing to do any justice at all to my phase plans.


Not paperless Archaeology

Not paperless Archaeology
Photo S Hay

So, I find myself, 16 years later, on Day of Archaeology buried under a pile of literary Pompeian pumice. The field work is complete and I just have to write it up. Simple enough, right? The wealth of Pompeian published texts is overwhelming. The sheer quantity of field notes and scribbled out annotations on plans I have accumulated from years of fieldwork is daunting. And somehow, I am expected to order, make sense of and process all of these things, whilst remaining coherent and retain a clear argument and rationale for my work. Not easy in 33 degrees of heat in Italy. But it’s a fun challenge. And besides, part of me simply believes I am participating in an ancient Roman neighbourhood watch scheme; checking in on each of the houses and their owners to keep tabs on what they are up to. Its just a scheme that happens to last for over 300 years.

5 thoughts on “Buried under a pile of literary pumice. A PhD on Pompeii

  1. Shawn says:

    Hey Sophie – I’ve been doing some analysis of Harris matrices as a kind of network analysis recently. Might be fun to try that with some of your materials…?

  2. Sophie Hay says:

    Hey Shawn. Of course, I have read more on your work and it sounds really interesting. Would love to help out.

  3. Hi Sophie!

    Thanks for this awesome article, so enjoyable to read. You really bring the community to life, imagining aspects of their daily – even mundane – existence. Very refreshing.

    I’m pleased that your PhD is receiving a fresh burst of energy. I, for one, will look forward to reading your thesis. 🙂

    Good luck!


  4. Sophie says:

    Hey Mark
    How great to hear from you and what a lovely thing to write. I’m touched! Thank you so much. The final product wont be as entertaining! Yes, great to be back on it but it all feels so long ago! Was going through photos and found loads of you digging your little room in the garden! Happy days.

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