Perceptions of Pollution in the Past

The presence of garbage in and around the tombs of Pompeii has been assumed, since excavations in the 19th century, to be present due to the decline of the civilization prior to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 72 CE. The trash consisted of butchered and charred animal bones, dog and equine bones, broken pottery and broken architectural material, as well as graffiti along the walls of the cemetery. The long held theories argue that as the city declined after an earthquake in 62 CE, garbage built up along the walls of the city and the cemetery. New research presented at the Archaeological Institute of America conference this past weekend argues against the long held assumption.

Tombs of Pompeii

University of Cincinnati doctoral student Allison Emmerson argues instead that Pompeii was experiencing a florescence during the period that the volcano erupted. This means that the interpretation that trash in the tombs is due to the collapse of the civilization is mistaken. “[We are] left the question of why so much trash was found in the cemeteries. These were not abandoned locales as of AD 79. People had not abandoned the maintenance of their burial spaces and structures any more than they had abandoned public spaces” says Emmerson. Instead, she argues that there were different perceptions of pollution during this period.

Emmerson compared pollution trends in the domestic sites with those in the cemetery. She found that trash was deposited rather casually throughout the entire site. Garbage pits were often found around water cisterns, trash was piled up along the edges of alleys and roads, and refuse was dumped along the edges of the urban areas. There are no clearly designated areas for refuse, nor do there appear to be any civilization based standards for the removal of garbage. Based on this, Emmerson argues that the people of Pompeii had different standards for sanitation and pollution. Modern conceptions of pollution would see the presence of trash around tombs as a sign of disrespect, however this isn’t necessarily true. By removing our bias and perception of the past, we can better interpret the presence of trash.

Cisterns and Garbage Pits, from Emmerson

Emmerson argues that they way we remember the dead, in clean cemeteries of quiet reflection, is not the way that the Romans sought to be remembered. She says “in general, when a Roman was confronted with death, he or she was more concerned with memory than with the afterlife. Individuals wanted to be remembered, and the way to do that was a big tomb in a high-traffic area. In other words, these tombs and cemeteries were never meant to be places for quiet contemplation. Tombs were display – very much a part of every day life, definitely not set apart, clean or quiet. They were part of the ‘down and dirty’ in life.”

Emmerson’s work is not only important in creating a more accurate interpretation of the people of Pompeii and their lifestyles, but the overall message is important for anyone practicing mortuary archaeology or bioarchaeology. Death itself may be universal, but the way that we perceive it, memorialize it, treat the bodies, and the reasons behind these actions are completely different in space and time. Since death is a sensitive subject, are perceptions and biases are not always questioned.

In my own work with cremations, bias has had a major and continuing presence in the interpretations of archaeologists, historians and other scholars. Cremations are often assumed to be the cheap alternate to burial. However, Jacqueline McKinley’s (2006) work has shown that it was often more expensive in the past. Without modern technology, cremating the deceased takes a large amount of wood and constant attention for over ten hours. This is especially true in areas where wood is scarce. Modern interpretations of fire as a destructive force also effects are perceptions. Past cultures saw fire as transformative, with the power to make food edible and metal malleable. Therefore, cremation was a transformative process, changing the body from a living individual into an ancestor.

Regardless of the work you are doing, it is important to recognize how our modern perceptions can bias our interpretations of the past. Even our views of things that are seemingly unrelated to our archaeological work, such as pollution or fire, can have a major effect on our conclusions. I applaud Emmerson for challenging the assumptions of the past, and look forward to seeing the final conclusions from her work.

Works Cited

Reilly, MB (2012) In Ancient Pompeii, tombs and trash went hand in hand. University of Cincinnati News.

McKinley, J (2006) Cremation… the cheap option? In Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. Knusel and Gowland, eds. Oxbow Books: Oxford.

2 responses to “Perceptions of Pollution in the Past

  1. There’s been a lot of work done on trash and the use-life of tombs at Pompeii by Lepetz and Van Andringa – they have a chapter in English in Living through the Dead (2011) and in French in a volume of Les Dossiers d’Archeologie (2008), in which they discuss their in-depth excavations of a tomb enclosure at the Porta Nocera cemetery at Pompeii. So Emmerson’s work is interesting, but hardly groundbreaking. We’ve known about the Romans’ propensity to litter everywhere for a number of years now.

    For more on Emmerson’s work, you can check out Storified tweets from her AIA talk:

    (Also, while I quite like the idea of Pompeii “experiencing a fluorescence,” what you mean is florescence. Although after the volcano erupted, there was plenty of fluorine to be had… 🙂

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