A mural of a baker giving out bread
A baker gives out bread to citizens on a festival day, displaying the importance of food in everyday life. On display as part of the Last Supper in Pompeii exhibition.

Recovering the everyday stories lost to time.

James Webster

The Ashmolean's 2019 exhibition explored ancient Pompeii. The exhibition has closed, but conservators continue to uncover the hidden histories of 37 previously untouched objects.

After a fascinating morning in the Ashmolean’s conservation labs, I find myself wandering through the Last Supper in Pompeii exhibition. Viewing the many wonderful exhibits with a renewed wonder for the conservation work that’s gone into them, my eye is drawn to a statue of Apollo towards the end.

It’s a gorgeous bronze piece, but this time that’s not the principle reason for my interest. The label tells me that it was later adapted for use as a tray holder during meals. For a moment, I ponder what the famously capricious deity would make of having his statue modified in such a way.

But for the most part, I’m caught by how it found a second life at the banquet table.

This is perhaps the biggest thing I took away from my visit to the labs. The Ashmolean was given 37 items from the Pompeii Archaeological Park’s archive. None of these had been outside Pompeii or seen significant conservation work before. As such, this represents a unique collaboration. And each object, especially those which have seen lots of practical use, tells a story.

Image from the conservation labs

Conservation Manager Alexandra Baldwin was kind enough to talk me through the various techniques used to analyse and conserve these objects. This is how they fight back to keep items in the best state possible. It’s also how they tease out the details that help us map each object’s journey.

Spread out on the tables in the lab are various copper pots, bowls, jugs and other vessels. Alexandra tells me that finds like these are quite rare. Due to the intrinsic value of metal, such items wouldn’t be thrown away, but sold second hand, repaired, reused and eventually melted down and remade.

But it’s exactly this long and varied lifespan that makes these objects so interesting.

There are two places you tend to find metal objects like this. The first is sites of ritual deposition, like burials. The second is places that have been struck by sudden catastrophe.

It’s only in those sites of catastrophe like Pompeii and Herculaneum that we find items that were still in use. So each nugget of information uncovered about these objects – from dents to organic residue to location found – tells a bit more of a story.

Take, for example, one of the especially fine pieces they’ve restored for the exhibition: a copper bowl with an intricate ram’s head handle and delicate silver inlay. To my untrained eye, the handle carving especially is gorgeous. This ‘patera’ was likely used for ritual hand-washing.

Slowly and painstakingly, Alexandra clearing away the detritus of the years with the help of delicate surgeon’s tools and binocular microscope. Alexandra and colleague Stephanie Ward (Objects Conservator) told me that as the fine details emerged, it became clear this was one of the finest pieces they’d seen.

Which is actually a little odd, given all these objects were excavated from one of Pompeii’s backstreet taverns. Hardly the venue you’d expect to find a well-crafted piece like this.

Looking over the maps of Pompeii, Alexandra pointed out landmarks like main roads, temples and the amphitheatre. It’s just round the corner from this site of various state-sponsored games and gladiatorial matches that the tavern is located. With a spacious garden, even including a small vineyard, it seems like it would have been a very pleasant location to pass an afternoon eating with friends. Given most ordinary Pompeiians wouldn’t have had their own full kitchens, take-away and dining out would have been a pretty regular part of their diets. So, how did such a fine piece end up in a run-of-the-mill eatery?

Further analysis (including x-rays) revealed the dents and damage the bowl had sustained. You might expect a bowl from Pompeii to be a bit worse for wear, but these were marks from before the eruption of Vesuvius. Given this clue, it seemed that this piece had probably been previously owned by a noble household, then damaged and sold on. Eventually, it made its way to this downhill tavern to be used by a multitude of regular citizens.

When the objects arrived in Oxford in several bright blue packing crates, the conservation team thought it would be a relatively straightforward job. They certainly weren’t expecting the various surprises and discoveries that their analysis would reveal about the many ordinary lives these objects touched.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was a bowl which, due to its shape, would usually be assumed to be used for ceremonial hand-washing. But during the cleaning process, Conservator Miriam Orsini found strange shapes embodied in the bottom. They looked, perhaps, like insects. None of the conservation team were insect experts, but thankfully the University of Oxford museums are filled with a wide variety of experts.

An entomologist from the Natural History Museum was called in: they identified the remains as common fly larvae and rove beetles.

The bowl on which these remains were found.

Insects like these wouldn’t have been interested as water; they’re attracted to protein. So the team could determine that this bowl would have been used for raw meat or fish. Perhaps a scrap bowl or a mixing bowl of some kind? Another example of something that likely served multiple uses over time, each of which unearths another piece of lives that – if not for Pompeii – we’d know very little about.

Walking around the exhibition after seeing the labs, this sense of exhibits as holding secret stories felt incredibly pronounced. A lot of them feel full of personality. There’s the branded murals and fish sauce bottles from one of Pompeii’s nouveau riche fish sauce (‘garum’) barons, clearly keen to show off his humble beginnings. Devotive offerings found in kitchen shrines (close to the hearth that was the centre of the home) also seem to whisper about ancient hopes and prayers.

Amidst the case that contains many of the newly conserved items, we can also see one jar left in the state in which it was excavated. It’s crusted with pumice that grows off the rim like a rocky fungus, and coated with a light blue sheen of volcanic-formed Lapili. It’s a stark contrast to the other pieces, delicately restored to their distinctive copper-tarnished surfaces.

A pot, left un-restored displaying rocky deposits and lazuli patina

A video nearby illustrates some of the work in the labs that I was privileged to have explained to me. We see, for example, how x-rays revealed the various repairs the vessels had undergone. Some had clearly been fixed up by skilled craftspeople with thin copper strips, riveted on. Others had crude repairs of melted lead poured over cracks. Again and again, these vessels were used and re-used, a constant part of the practical lives of Pompeiians.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that they’re being used here, again, as part of an exhibition that highlights the relationship between a people and their food.

And there’s still more analysis underway. Many of the objects still had traces of organic material (partly thanks to the copper they’re made out of, which kills bacteria). In another collaboration, the Oxford Archaeology and Chemistry departments are currently working together to find out what that can tell us.

Once the exhibition ends (after the last day tomorrow, 11 January), still more work will be done with x-ray and other techniques. It seems this partnership with the Parco Archeologico di Pompei, with funding for the conservation work supported by the Stockman Family Foundation and the Helen Roll Charity, has more secrets to uncover.

Coming up next for the conservation labs at the Ashmolean will be some work on their Ancient Near East collection. Among other techniques, this project will use hyperspectral imaging to uncover more about ancient objects from sites such as Ur and Nimrud. While it’s too early to say what will be discovered, they are hoping that such analysis could (for example) tell us more about the pigments and colours which would have decorated ivory and carved figures, and stone reliefs, bringing a bit of colour back into history…