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Exploring the Ancient Past

The House of the Surgeon

By Natasha Sheldon

Possibly one of the oldest houses in Pompeii, the development and decline of the House of the Surgeon can be traced through its archaeology.

The house of the surgeon is named after the wide range of surgical instruments found when it was first rediscovered. Its age has been subject to some debate. Although predating the Roman occupation of Pompeii, modern archaeological dates its original construction at around the second century BC, rather than the fourth century BC as originally believed.

 

Whatever the age of the property, the life cycle of the house is clear in the archaeology. A basic atrium house, it was updated to keep up with Roman architectural fashions, declining in its last years before the eruption of Vesuvius.

 

Ancient Building Materials of Houses in Pompeii.

 

The house is built in opus quadratum style from large blocks of sarno limestone stacked on top of each other, fitted together with ashlar.

 

Usually this style of construction was only used for the facades of houses in Pompeii and the exterior side walls. In the house of the Surgeon, it is rather uncommonly used for the atrium walls. This was one of the factors that led experts to believe that the house was of primitive construction dating back to the fourth century AD.

 

Archaeological Dating of Roman Architecture.

 

Archaeological dating dispels this theory. Reanalysis of the subsoil in the 1980s suggests that the current building dates to around 200BC.Archaeologists have also found the impluvium of an earlier atrium under the service area of the current building, suggesting a previous domestic structure on the plot.

 

Excavations of the current atrium and tablinium have also yielded evidence of a previous building. A third century coin, dating to 214-212BC was found amongst the rubble and plaster of  remains beneath the atrium. Similar layers under the tablinium yielded a black gloss lamp dating to the 3rd or 2nd BC.

 

This evidence suggests that the current building cannot date from the fourth century BC and in fact is no earlier than the second century BC. It is, however still an example of a Pre Roman Pompeian house.

 

A Typical Atrium Style House.

 

The overall design is of a classic atrium style house. Shops flanked either side of a narrow fauces which opened out onto the atrium. On its left and right sides of the  close to the entrance were four small bedrooms, with two small salons at the other end. The remains of the study is immediately opposite the fauces. Equipped with folding wooden doors, allowing it to open out directly onto the atrium,  it followed the classic fauces-atrium-tablinium axis.

 

The tablinium was flanked by two dining rooms. The larger of the two was an internal room for winter dining. The smaller left hand room was probably a converted into a summer triclinium when the house was modified.

 

It is here that the House of the Surgeon’s layout deviates from the classical roman template. Rather than opening out onto a peristyle garden, the summer dining room overlooked a small colonnaded portico which in turn opened into a hortus style garden. This hortus, which was essentially a back garden, was probably a feature of the original layout. It remained because space did not allow a peristyle to be added when the house was redesigned in the first century BC.

 

The Re-Design and Decline of a Pompeian house.

 

The re-design of the house occurred after the Social Wars of 91-89BC. By this time, Pompeii had lost its independence and became a Roman colony. Besides the summer triclinium, the main effect on the layout of the house was to give it a separate service area.

 

A rear service entrance, for deliveries and the comings and goings of the domestic staff, was situated next to the kitchen. This and the other service rooms were situated as far from the public and leisure areas of the domus as possible. Access was organised so that it was inconspicuous but functional. A narrow convoluted passageway leading into the atrium connected the two areas, allowing servants to discretely deliver food to the dining rooms.

 

The archaeology shows that by the time of the eruption of Vesuvius, the house had declined considerably. Regularly spaced post holes were found to have been cut into the atrium floor. They suggest posts were being used to prop up the roof of the atrium.

 

The dilapidated condition of the house was probably due to damage sustained during the earthquake of 62AD which the owner could not afford to repair.

 

Sources

Dobbins, J, J & Foss, P, W, (2008). The World of Pompeii. Routledge: London and New York

Grant, M, (2005). Pompeii and Herculaneum: Cities of Vesuvius. The Folio Society: London

McKay, A G, (1975). Houses, Villas and Palaces in the Roman World. Thames & Hudson