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The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii. Vol. 3, The Finds: A Contextual Study

July 2008 (112.3)

Book Review

The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii. Vol. 3, The Finds: A Contextual Study

By Penelope M. Allison. With a contribution by Teresa Giove. Pp. xlvi + 503, pls. 132, figs. 82. Clarendon Press, Oxford 2006. $360. ISBN 0-19-926312-4 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Allison’s goal in this most recently published volume of the series, The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii, is to construct a context for the loose finds in the houses and shops that made up Region I.10. Prominent among these structures are the Casa degli Amanti, the Casa del Fabbro, and the Casa del Menandro, the house from which the insula as a whole derives its name. Although designated volume 3, this work is actually the fourth volume to appear, having been preceded, in order of publication, by volume 1, The Structures (1997); volume 4, The Silver Treasure (2001); and volume 2, The Decorations (2005). The first two volumes analyze and interpret the architecture and decoration, respectively, of the houses as they developed over time; volume 4 is a study of only the silver treasure found in the room beneath the atriolum of the private bath in the House of the Menander. For her part, Allison concentrates on movable artifacts found in each structure and draws conclusions on their function, or lack of use, in late August 79 C.E. From analysis of the objects and their findspots, she attempts to conclude whether each room of a house was in use at the time of the eruption and, if so, for what purpose. She also offers tentative suggestions about the degree of habitation of each house and characterizes the nature of house occupancy at the time that Vesuvius destroyed the city. The fifth and final volume will address wall inscriptions. Once complete, this multivolume work, edited by Roger Ling and the fruit of a study begun 30 years ago, will constitute the most comprehensive analysis of the development, architecture, decoration, furnishings, and occupant activity of an entire city block in Pompeii.

The work has five parts. In part 1, Allison defines the parameters and explains the methodology of her study. She concentrates only on loose finds principally recorded in excavations between 1926 and 1933 and looks at them not as manufactured objects in and of themselves but as “consumed household commodities” (4) that provide information on the behavior of the inhabitants. Consequently, the focus is sociological rather than technological. She views the finds in each room of each structure as “assemblages” and analyzes them as to their functions. One of the major themes of this study is the relationship of the nomenclature, both ancient and modern, of certain artifacts with their actual use by Romans. In this highly useful part of her study, she discusses various Greek, Latin, and Italian terms found in early excavation records, such as the Giornale degli Scavi and Pompeian inventories. She follows this discussion in chapter 30 of part 4 with additional comments informed by her contextualization of the artifacts within the rooms of the houses where they were found, the focus of part 2. She concludes that most items, or classes of items, had multiple functions and cannot be easily ascribed to a particular activity or situation (398).

Part 2, which constitutes the bulk of the book, is a room-by-room, house-by-house catalogue of individual finds. For each room she lists the artifacts found, gives a detailed physical description of them (including, where extant, their present location), and, where appropriate, discusses their potential uses within the household. Although this section may appear rather pedestrian, time spent reading Allison’s descriptions and discussions pays huge dividends in insights gained into how various household items were or may have been used. Since the focus is the artifacts within the room, the descriptions would benefit from the nearby placement of a plan for each house. The ability to visualize where the artifacts were found and their relationship with other finds in the room seems crucial for any “spatial analysis.” At the very least, figure A, the plan of the insula as a whole placed at the back of the book, would have been better as a fold-out plan that could be easily and simultaneously consulted while reading the entries for each room.

Part 3 summarizes and analyzes the artifact assemblages in the rooms of each house and characterizes house occupancy just before the eruption. Chapter 31 of part 4 summarizes, for the insula as a whole, conclusions drawn from this discussion. In describing each room, Allison recognizes several complicating factors that face any analysis of room use based on the loose finds, including repairs and renovations resulting from seismic activity between 62 and 79 C.E., human intrusions either during or after the eruption, and items falling into a room from a collapsing upper floor. I would add the possibility that horizontal displacement of small loose items, or fragments of larger artifacts, caused by localized swirls within the turbulent movement of pyroclastic currents through a house might explain some findspot anomalies reported (e.g., 302, 305) (cf. L. Gurioli et al., “Interaction of Pyroclastic Density Currents with Human Settlements,” Geology 33 [2005] 441–44). With these caveats, Allison draws some interesting conclusions. So, for instance, she maintains that atria were not relatively empty rooms but normally functioned as much to store furniture and other domestic material as to display them (400). Relying upon an analysis of artifact dispersal and the distribution of household activities suggested by them, she concludes that, as of the day of the eruption, the house at Region I.10.1 was unoccupied, the Casa del Menandro was neither fully inhabited nor functioning normally, the Casa del Fabbro operated as an industrial/commercial complex rather than a domestic one, and the inhabitants of Region I.10.8 were living in “straightened” circumstances and had departed the house during the eruption.

Following part 4 are three appendices: a catalogue of coins from Region I.10 housed in the Museo Nazionale di Napoli (by Teresa Giove), a typological concordance delineating the relationship of the catalogue and inventory numbers of the artifacts with the plates and figures, and a glossary of terms used in the text. The bibliography and index are useful; the black-and-white plates and figures are generally of high quality. Aimed at the scholar, the book’s high price will restrict its ownership primarily to academic institutions.

Robert I. Curtis
Department of Classics
University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia 30602-6203

Book Review of The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii. Vol. 3, The Finds: A Contextual Study, by Penelope M. Allison

Reviewed by Robert I. Curtis

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 3 (July 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1123.Curtis

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