Ancient cities

‘Vesuvius, fare well until my return.’ A Non-Invasive Archaeological Research Project on the Shops of Roman Pompeii.

Via delle Scuole, Pompeii looking towards Mt Vesuvius. Copyright Sera Baker.

Via delle Scuole streetscape in Region 8, Pompeii looking towards Mt Vesuvius. Copyright Sera Baker, 2016.

Vesuvius and I have a little one-to-one chat each time I visit Pompeii in southern Italy. It’s the first thing and the last thing I do on every fieldwork and research visit. Without Vesuvius I couldn’t be the archaeologist and researcher that I am. 

As a Roman archaeologist specialising in socio-cultural and economic examinations of ancient Pompeii and the early Roman Empire I have visited the ancient city countless times in the past 15 years. I feel like I know the city like the back of my hand: entering at the Porta Marina gate, sharing greetings with the Pompeii superintendency staff and custodians who I haven’t seen in a number of months or years, climbing the steep Via Marina road leading into the city that widens into the city as you arrive at the forum. Turn left and it’s the backdrop to the Capitoline Triad temple remains: Mt Vesuvius, the volcano that catastrophically destroyed and preserved the Roman city, a small town that wasn’t of particular great importance in the Roman Empire. The violent eruption of AD 79 had a myriad of consequences, covering the city in several metres of ash and pumice after a 24 hour long bombardment and killing those who had not escaped the city and burying the contents of their homes, businesses, religious sites and theatres entirely.

Nearly two thousand years later the city was ‘rediscovered’ (although it had never properly been lost) under the Bourbon rulers of Naples in 1748. Ten years earlier the ancient city of Herculaneum had been found and the fever of antiquarianism was rising. Excavation revealed surprisingly familiar aspects of an ancient civilisation: statuary, belongings, homes, and so on. Despite early use of backfilling, a practice in which materials excavated, such as soil, are returned to the opened areas, Pompeii eventually became the open air museum that we understand it as today. But don’t be fooled. This isn’t a city frozen in time. Since Day 1 of its burial the site has been subject to a slow, natural decomposition in addition to destruction carried out by humans, both in antiquity and from 1748 onwards.

My research, mostly carried out as part of a PhD degree, focuses upon the lesser studied shops and workshops, also known as tabernae, which fronted many of the homes along major arteries in the city. These small structures are important because they tell us about what everyday life was like for non-elite Romans, slaves and freedmen (ex-slaves) in terms of where they worked, their trades and crafts, their eating and drinking habits, and, in a few cases, where they may have lived. An insight into Roman shops at Pompeii provides an understanding of population, society, culture, urban planning, trade, and commerce. It also tells us quite a lot about the impact of war and Roman colonisation, slavery, migration, patronage, art, neighbourhood development and industrialisation across the city.


A bakery retrofitted into a two storey house (8.4.27), left, and a shop for bread (8.4.26), right. Another shop (8.4.25), far right. Copyright Sera Baker, 2016.

A bakery retrofitted into a two storey house (8.4.27), left, and a shop for bread (8.4.26), right. Another shop (8.4.25), far right. Copyright Sera Baker, 2016.

In light of city’s size, I have chosen to work in a quarter known today as Region 8, just south of the forum and Via dell’Abbondanza, close to the two theatres of the Entertainment District, and bordered by the city wall and the Porta Marina and Porta Stabia gates. Most tourists to the city will walk by my shops without noticing their presence or their importance to the city, although they might notice the shops with counters looking like taverns. The majority of the 93 shops in this area are small structures under four rooms in total. Some are directly connected to the elite houses (popularly known as villas, but correctly identified as domus) that were owned by families of local political importance who also maintained commercial interests, which is in contrast to incorrect 19th & 20th century views that Roman elites avoided direct trade and monetary dealings.

One particular aspect of shops is a favourite of mine: the architecture. Quite a lot of my time is spent at my desk in England analysing field research carried out site and the architecture is often the most revealing because 18th & 19th century excavation records rarely include recordings of finds from the shops despite being rich sources of materials and decorated buildings in their own right. Archaeologists often refer to this type of analysis as non-invasive research’ because it doesn’t require further excavation and damage to ancient structures and landscapes. Pompeii is an excellent site to carry out this type of approach because the wealth of material and speed of early excavations means that much remains to be interpreted from exposed buildings and their contents. It is quite a lot like putting a massive puzzle back together when you don’t have an entire understanding of what that puzzle is meant to be.

To keep track of the extensive number of photographs, plans, archival records and my own analysis findings I developed a digital database (along with some generous assistance from Derek Littlewood, @eggboxderek). I love reading the walls for the information that they provide, with or without their finished decoration, revealing building phases and additions, and most importantly telling archaeologists about reconstruction following the seismic activity, including earthquakes, leading up to the fatal eruption in AD 79. Even details such as the simple thresholds set within shop doorways are thrilling: I can understand how and when these doorways and their doors operated, learn about Roman carpentry and locks and take part in scholarly debates around differences between mezzanines and upper floors and why their different terminology and definitions affect their use.


Database, Tabernae of Roman Pompeii. A working example. Copyright Sera Baker, 2016. No use without permission.

Database record for 8.4.27, The tabernae of Roman Pompeii: shops & workshops of Region VIII. A working example. Copyright Sera Baker, 2016. No use without permission.

And while my PhD research isn’t a group project, I depend on the regular exchanges of ideas and discussion of new developments at Pompeii with a number of other researchers. Some of the especially important individuals, projects, and publications, that have impacted my area of research in the recent past include Dr Joanne Berry, Drs Steven Ellis and Eric Poehler of the Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabia, Dr Sophie Hay (@pompei79), and many, many others.

Sera Baker is currently completing a PhD at The University of Nottingham, UK. She enjoys discussing Roman archaeology on her Twitter feed, @seraecbaker. To learn more about Pompeii take a look at the official archaeological website from the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia (English & Italian; for most complete information use the Italian site).

Inspiring Archaeology


My name is Sharon M. Wolf. I am in charge of an intermediate school library with four hundred students. I am not an archaeologist. However, I have studied Pompeii for four years.

I have been doing presentations on Pompeii for three years now at schools, for the town, and the public library. I truly love sharing what I know about Pompeii with people. I’ve had a number of young students say they want to grow up and become archaeologists.

I also just took a fantastic course on Archaoelogy of Portus:exploring the lost harbor of Ancient Rome. This was by Southampton on the internet. It was for free and is an incredible course with so much information! I learned about many non invasive excavation techniques.

I just bought a Galileo to enhance my photos of Pompeii and other ruins. Galileo attaches to the iPhone and does a 360 view of where you are. This will make the students and adults feel as though they are right there.

Though I am not an archaeologist (yet) I am taking more courses. I truly feel that it is so important to get other people  interested in protecting our heritage. I have another presentation on Pompeii coming up at the end of the month. I hope to inspire even more people to become archaeologists or at least to help preserve our sites.


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.


So, am on way to Pompeii having just avoided hell at Roma Termini station. Tourists have descended and the Italians are ripe for their holidays. Coupled with the fact that there was some incident at the other main line station in Rome I apparently caught the last train headed south for… well who knows how long. All is dealt with in a manner of utter chaos. Welcome to Italy.
From the air conditioned luxury of the fast train to the smell and grime of the local tonker-toy train to Pompei Scavi ( Pompeii Excavations). I spent 4 years living in this area when I worked on the BSR Pompeii Project directed By Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, and I still get a buzz when I return. Being amidst the tones of the Neapolitan dialect fills me with fond memories.
Next, to meet up with Dr Steven Ellis and Dr Eric Poehler who have devised a revolutionary approach to archaeological recording. One that is paperless. Using only iPads on site to record all aspects of excavation and wall recording they are pushing the boundaries of technology, apps, and even the way of thinking of how to record archaeology. But for the moment I am stuck on a platform with the stale stench of urine and cigarette butts.

So made it to Porta Stabia on the south side of Pompeii to meet the lovely Dr Steven Ellis. Not a trace of sweat on his brow despite finding him hard at work backfilling one of their trenches. Do like excavation directors who get their hands dirty. Then met up with the similarly lovely Eric Poehler in the Quadriporticus. His work on the standing building survey really fascinates me as it was what I did in Pompeii but using pencil and paper and incorporated no swish of the finger across an iPad screen. Brilliant discoveries by simply looking at walls always excites me. The simplicity of the technique but one that reveals the complexity of the story.
Obviously cannot divulge the new findings but suffice to say there are some and both PARPS:PS and the PQP team are delighted with their seasons work.
Now in true archaeologists fashion…. A cold beer is much needed.