You are here

Les lieux de métier: Boutiques et ateliers d’Herculanum

July 2013 (117.3)

Book Review

Les lieux de métier: Boutiques et ateliers d’Herculanum

By Nicolas Monteix (BÉFAR 344). Pp. xiv + 478, figs. 228, pls. 9. École Française de Rome, Rome 2010. €75. ISBN 978-2-7283-0891-0 (cloth).

Reviewed by

How should scholars think about studying ancient shops? Were all shops the same? Was there really much “shopping” in classical antiquity? Shopping is so deeply embedded in the popular imagination as a modern preoccupation that it is not easy to reframe shops in an ancient setting without seeming either to be frankly anachronistic at one extreme or totally lacking in imagination at the other. Monteix is well aware of the historiographical problem facing any scholar who wants to make a serious and systematic study of Roman shops. This is why his investigation is not flagged simply as an in-depth study of the surviving physical remains that can be identified with retail accommodation in Herculaneum, but of the locations of expertise—métiers. By framing the debate about shops within a larger discussion of crafts and services, the author not only explores the physical environment of 50 commercial structures/workshops in the city but sets this discussion within a larger intellectual context.

Monteix has published a number of specialized reports on nonresidential establishments in Insula VI, more particularly those on the facade of the House of the Black Saloon (VI.12, VI.14, and VI.15). In this monograph, he collects the evidence for spaces associated with craft and commercial activities in a dedicated catalogue, with detailed references and diagrams (cat. nos. 1–50). Scholars will undoubtedly want to refer to this catalogue in any future debates about the productive economy of Herculaneum.

Monteix’s discussion nevertheless begins with the challenges posed by the ways in which the ancient city of Herculaneum was first tunnelled in 1738 by Charles Bourbon and, more particularly, since Amedeo Maiuri’s resumption of systematic investigations in 1927. One of the reasons for the catalogue mentioned above is the absence of a synthetic record of Herculaneum’s built environment. Maiuri wrote regularly about the excavations conducted from 1927 through 1958. His main study of the ancient city (Ercolano: I nuovi scavi, 1927–1958 [Rome 1958]) makes selective use of information from this time span. What is more, conservation and reconstruction of the remains had introduced changes and modifications to representations of various spaces that were not consistent, it seems, with the original records. The author has had to go back to Maiuri’s notebooks (published in 2008) and to the original excavation records, to which he adds the findings of a small number of carefully targeted, limited excavations (ix–xiv, 1–36).

Can we distinguish a workshop (atelier) from a retail establishment? This very question makes assumptions about what we might expect to find in an ancient town, expectations that have perplexed researchers since Maiuri first described the House of Wattlework (Casa a Graticcio) and the neighboring House of the Wooden Screen (Casa del Tramezzo di Legno) in Insula III, which between them exemplify the different socioeconomic nuances that organic evidence, particularly wooden installations, imply about the organization of and investment in specific spaces. Monteix sets out in chapter 1 to explore conceptual understandings of space alongside the physical examination of surviving spaces. Although the word taberna has no specific commercial association in the Digest, other textual evidence, including inscriptions from Pompeii (41–8), suggests that the connection between taberna and commerce was at least a common one. Representations of divinities on shop fronts are not common—2 out of 52 possible locations at Herculaneum; 7 out of 600 or more at Pompeii—although it is fair to say that these are dedications, rather than advertisements. Perhaps five establishments can be identified with confidence as workshops on the basis of associated finds. The unpalatable fact is that out of 49 properties in Herculaneum that might have been shops or workshops, there is no specific evidence that would confirm such an identity for as many as 19 (87).

Monteix has therefore undertaken a different approach in the following chapters. In chapter 2, he explores the sale of foodstuffs in considerable detail, concluding that 38% of retail outlets at Herculaneum sold uncooked food, as compared with 16% at Pompeii (89–132, fig. 59). In chapter 3 (133–67), he looks at bakeries and bread making, concluding that not one single retail outlet has been found in Herculaneum where bread was sold. Bearing in mind that perhaps only 25–30% of the urban fabric of this town has as yet been uncovered, this may be less surprising than it seems. Bread may have been sold in other ways than over a counter; or bread counters simply cannot be proved to the satisfaction of most scientists. Monteix’s analysis of textile works at Herculaneum points to other significant differences between that town and Pompeii (169–217). The former offers a range of textile-related establishments, although there seems to be no direct evidence of a dyeing works. One of the most pointed contrasts is in washing facilities—a mere 2 in Herculaneum, compared with between 24 and 27 in Pompeii. There was also a difference in scale. At Pompeii, besides the workshops housing up to a dozen fulling basins, which have equivalents at Herculaneum, there were four large fulling establishments with a continuous water supply and in some cases a press (216–17).

Chapters 5–7 look more closely at the architectural history of individual units within the urban texture of Herculaneum in order to shed light on the wider context of commercial, public, and residential architecture. One of the author’s aims in this endeavor was to provide a reliable foundation for dating the development of nonresidential units. Whereas Maiuri envisaged commerce in the hands of nouveaux riches freedmen (epitomized by Petronius’ Trimalchio) “invading” the town during the first century C.E., the author has sought to show that commercial outlets were already present in the Augustan period and increased steadily, right up to the time of the eruption in 79 (349–73; esp. figs. 199, 203). He takes account of the fact that ground-floor space for commercial use may have amounted to 6% of the available urban fabric, but another 31%, which represents upper floor space, can be added to this with a high degree of confidence (353, fig. 193).

The author by no means exhausts the kinds of questions that can be asked about first-century C.E. shops in central Italy and, by extension, in the Roman provinces. This is for readers of his extremely valuable presentation and analysis of the available physical evidence to ponder. Monteix does not claim to offer a comprehensive picture of shops and workshops. He has reviewed an important data set, drawing heavily on the Herculaneum archive created by Maiuri, advancing our understanding of how such data can be used to answer questions about specific commercial ventures in a given historical phase. He offers creative hypotheses about how this data can be projected to make general statements about commerce, and about the built environment of Herculaneum.

Zosia H. Archibald
Department of Archaeology, Classics, and Egyptology
University of Liverpool
Liverpool L69 7WZ
United Kingdom

Book Review of Les lieux de métier: Boutiques et ateliers dHerculanum, by Nicolas Monteix

Reviewed by Zosia H. Archibald

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 3 (July 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1173.Archibald

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.