Pompeii at Smith: New exhibit at Lyman Plant House complements the museum’s “Villas of Oplontis”

Photo by Danielle Colburn ’20 | A new exhibit in the Lyman Plant House explores the gardens of Ancient Rome.


Danielle Colburn ’20
Assistant Copy Editor

On April 1, the Lyman Plant House unveiled its new exhibit, “Plants of Pompeii: Ancient and Modern Medicinal Plants” to the public. This exhibit compliments “The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii” at Smith’s Museum of Art, which is composed of sculptures, jewelry, building fragments and utilitarian objects from two Roman villas that were buried over one thousand years ago during Mount Vesuvius’s infamous 79 C.E. eruption. While “The Villas of Oplontis” focuses specifically on these two Roman villas, “Plants of Pompeii,” based on the work of garden archaeologist Wilhelmina Jashemski, covers excavation research from Pompeii, Oplontis and the town of Herculaneum to provide a broader look at the daily life of Roman elite who vacationed in these areas.

Although it might not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Pompeii nowadays, the city and its surrounding areas were famous, in their time, for their gardens, flower culture and their rich history of using plants as healing agents. Before modern science, the Roman relationship to plants was studied through wall paintings, mosaics and sculptures, in addition to Roman author Pliny the Elder’s book, “Natural History,” which covers topics including botany and horticulture. Jashemski largely changed this approach when, in a 1966 excavation of Pompeii, she got the idea to study excavated plant material to determine which plant species had been cultivated by the Romans, and why.

But how could Jashemski study plants from over a thousand years ago? Although debris from Mount Vesuvius was hot enough to burn material, the lack of oxygen caused by a thick layer of volcanic gas, smoke and ash meant that plant material was not burned during the disaster, but instead was carbonized and thus preserved. When Jashemski analyzed carbonized fruit, seeds and nuts, and examined pollen found in volcanic rock material, she was able to gain information about what kinds of plants were valued by ancient Pompeians. Another technique, plaster casting, also contributed to this work and to the growing field of garden archaeology. Under certain conditions, cavities and carbonized plant material remained where plants buried by volcanic ash had once been. In these cases, casts of the plants can be made by pouring plaster mixture into the voids, resulting in intricately detailed reconstructions of the shape of the material that had originally filled the voids.

While “Plants of Pompeii” doesn’t feature any of these plaster casts, it does display beautifully-inked plant portraits created by Victoria I and Lillian Nicholson Meyer for Jashemski’s 1999 book, “A Pompeian Herbal.” The exhibit’s portraits illustrate the plants identified in Jashemski’s excavations, and captions below the portraits explain the medicinal uses for each, often citing Pliny the Elder’s book, “Natural History.” Surprisingly, not every plant in the exhibit is an extinct or unrecognizable species—as a plaque at the exhibit reads, “Many of these can be found outdoors in the Botanic Garden, in the Lyman Conservatory, and maybe in your own garden.” Some of the more familiar plants covered in the exhibition include an apple found in one of the Oplontis villa gardens, which was used to treat vomiting and diarrhea; parsley, which was believed to have caused abortions if inserted into the vagina of a pregnant woman; and the popular crop barley, which was used as a laxative or to give sickly patients strength.

If you missed its opening day, “Plants of Pompeii” can be seen in the Church Exhibition Gallery in the Lyman Plant House seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. until Dec. 15. Its related exhibit, “The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii,” will be on display until Aug. 13 in the Smith College Museum of Art.

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