atrium In a Roman
house, an unroofed room with a basin below.
fragment of pottery or stone on which something has been written or drawn.
In Greek and Roman architecture, a courtyard surrounded by a colonnaded
stelai, stelae) A stone slab, usually thin in section, placed vertically; often
decorated with inscriptions, relief sculptures, and/or paintings.
artificial mound consisting of the remains of settlements, especially the
air-dried mud brick favored as a building material. Arabic tell ¼ Persian tepe,
Turkish ho" yu" k.
Cities arose fairly recently in the long history of
humankind. Changes in climate c. 12 000 years ago led to the end of the Ice
Ages, to a warmer, moister climate that in certain parts of the world favored
the development of controlled agriculture and animal husbandry. No longer were
people dependent on the collecting or hunting of wild food sources. Thanks to
agriculture, in particular, permanent, year-round settlements developed. As
farmers settled together in small villages, as food surpluses were registered,
certain people were freed for other tasks - crafts, religious activities, etc.
Increase in population eventually resulted in cities, with such features as
monumental public architecture, figural art, writing, and social
These changes, and the rise of cities, occurred at different
times in different parts of the world, with many regions never having cities at
all. The earliest cities appeared in the Near East. Here, the changes described
above began to take place in the eleventh to tenth millennia BC. By the fourth
millennium BC, developed cities had appeared. This article focuses on cities in
this region - the Near East, Egypt, and the Mediterranean basin - with a
concluding section on Teotihuacan (Mexico), as a New World comparison.
Daily Life Defined
`Daily life' in ancient cities comprises many elements. The
polarity between private and public is one basic way to structure any study. Private
life centers on the house. The architecture and objects (furniture,
decorations, utensils, and tools) suggest family relationships and activities
happening in the house. Gender and age relationships are important: male and
female, and children, mature adults, and the elderly. The life cycle with its
rites of passage can serve as a focus: birth, marriage, old age, death.
Household functions include food preparation and eating (or dining), hygiene,
sleeping, socializing, etc.
The public arena centers on social relationships, political
organization, and the maintenance of order, economic matters (making a living,
commerce and trade), and religion. Within a social hierarchy, different ranks
in society, from rulers to slaves, have their various occupations. Other
functions of city life were also public: religious practices, for one, and
certain entertainments, such as the Roman bath. But like private life, public
life takes place in a physical setting: buildings, monuments, streets, open
spaces, perhaps in connection with certain natural features (rivers, hills,
mountains, the sea, harbors).What these elements look like, individually and in
relation with others, is an essential part of recreating daily life in ancient
The Archaeology of
Daily Life in Cities
Archaeology as a Source of Information
The possibility of stepping into vanished worlds has a great
appeal. Archaeology, by exposing ruined cities, their buildings and their
artifacts, is an important vehicle for making this possible. For many, a visit
to an archaeological site is more exciting if one gets the sense of what living
there in a past time period was like. But for historic periods, ancient texts
have also been a prime source of information about ancient life. The Hebrew
Bible and Greek and Latin literature contain infinite details, combined with
the names of people and places. Ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Mayan
texts, now readable thanks to decipherments in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, also offer much. For some, the written word is supreme; the reality
of place and object, the discipline of archaeology, are supplementary to the
texts. These preferences can be reflected in the structures of academic study
in universities, museums, and research centers.
We who wish to enter ancient worlds should not feel forced
to choose, for each source of information makes a valuable contribution. We
might well ask, though, what do archaeological excavations contribute that
literary sources cannot? Archaeology, the study of material culture, makes
clear the visual and the tactile. Ancient sounds (music), ancient smells (perfumes,
cooked foods, fuels), ancient tastes (foods, wines, other drinks) are lost to
us. Actions of all sorts and communications between people are recorded in
texts, and we can perhaps visualize them taking place. But archaeology gives us
the physical environment in which we can place the people and events we read
about: the natural setting, the built environment (the city, its plan, its
architecture), and the objects that ancient peoples created.
The Preservations of
The material remains from ancient times are never preserved
in their entirety. Climatic, geological, and cultural conditions all play a
part in preserving and destroying. A dry climate, such as that of Egypt,
preserves organic materials well. In contrast, in a wet, damp climate, the
human body and products from animals' bodies (leather, hair), wood and other
plant products, and even metal objects rot, rust, corrode, disintegrate. The
state of preservation affects our understanding of particular cultures.
Textiles, for example, were an important product of daily life and commercial
exchange, but they never survive with the completeness of a stone sculpture.
Geological factors also have impact. Earthquakes, fires,
volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, erosion, and the repeated flooding of
silt-bearing rivers (such as the Nile) all have the potential to change the
urban landscape. Human agency also has contributed to the alterations in the
material record. In cities occupied for centuries, the building materials of
structures collapsed or destroyed might be recycled into new constructions. At
the very least, foundations of buildings typically remain. Another standard
remnant of ancient city life is broken pottery, for ceramics, products of a technology
first developed in the mid-Neolithic period (eighth millennium BC), do not
disintegrate. Other cultural habits that have preserved artifacts include the
placing of objects in tombs and the depositing of offerings in religious
Research Design: Effects on Understanding Ancient Daily Life
The questions that archaeologists seek to answer are hugely
varied. They can be shaped by the state of research in a particular region or
time period, its pasttraditions and current problems, and by the academic
training of the individual researcher. In the Mediterranean, Egypt, and the
Near East, approaches have included antiquarianism, the historical-descriptive,
and the anthropological. These should not be seen as mutually exclusive, but
overlap and complement each other, depending on the interests of the particular
Antiquarianism refers to an interest in an object by itself,
a thing of beauty or curiosity. Compiling collections was often its goal. Today
this term is negative, for it suggests that the interest in the object is
shallow, divorced from any scientific study of the object's value in
understanding the past.
A historical-descriptive approach has dominated the
archaeology of our region in the past two centuries. Archaeologists seek to
understand the material record by creating a framework for its study: by
describing buildings and artifacts carefully, then by arranging them in
chronological (or historical) order, and by seeing developments through time
(diachronical): `what', `when', `where'. With such classifications in hand,
scholars can then compare and contrast developments between sites, between
regions, between time periods. In our region, such comparisons are generally
made within a particular civilization (Egyptian, Greek, Roman). For the study
of the material evidence of daily life, this approach has been essential.
Anthropological approaches, applied especially to
prehistoric cities, seek to understand the material record as a reflection of
human behavior. While historical-descriptive analyses are not ignored but
valued as helpful tools, the archaeologist focuses on larger questions, such as
`how' and `why'. In addition, the anthropologist is interested in comparing
situations between different civilizations, to extract larger lessons about the
nature of human societies.
In order to explore further the issues raised above, let us
examine five archaeological sites that are particularly well known for evidence
concerning daily life, both from the Old World and the New. With our Old World
examples, we shall proceed in reverse chronological order, from later to
Pompeii, near Naples (Italy), is justly famous for its rich
evidence for daily life. This provincial Roman city, founded in the late sixth
century BC, was destroyed in AD 79 by the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius,
buried under volcanic pumice and ash (see Volcanism and Archaeology). Despite
some salvage, looting, and sporadic occupation, the city was never dug out and
reinhabited. Thanks to the building materials of stone, brick, and concrete,
the architectural fabric of the city did not disintegrate, but remained
remarkably well preserved, offering us an unparalleled glimpse into Roman city
life in the late Republic and early Empire. Excavations began here in 1748,
among the earliest of organized archaeological expeditions anywhere, and have
continued to the present.
The walled city housed a population of c. 10 000- 20 000.
For the most part, the city was laid out on a grid plan, with the earliest
sector, the `forum' (city center) in the southwest. The forum and its environs
contained the most important public buildings of the city. A long, narrow
rectangular space, the open-air forum was lined by colonnaded porticoes. At the
north, short end, stood the Temple of Jupiter, the major shrine of the city.
Behind the porticoes lay civic, commercial, and additional religious buildings.
Civic buildings at the south end of the forum offered meeting space for the
town council, chief magistrates, and the police. Commercial buildings, on the
east, included a guild hall for wool processors (Eumachia's building) and a
meat and fish market. Religious buildings consisted of a Temple to Apollo and a
shrine to the deified emperor Vespasian. Emperors were routinely worshipped as
divinities; the cult of the deified emperor served to link towns throughout the
Archaeology at Greek and Roman sites has often concentrated
on grand public buildings, so the view of ordinary street life that Pompeii
gives is exceptional. Streets here had sidewalks and large stepping stones at
intersections so one could step over any mud or sewage. Shops were frequent.
They included amill and a bakery, with stone mills for grinding flour and an
oven for baking bread, and wine shops or snack bars with huge clay jars
embedded in the counters for easy serving of beverages. Street walls were
covered with advertisements and graffiti on all sorts of topics, such as
politics, sex, and love, with many people named.
Pompeii had its own theaters, like all Roman cities. Types
included a large, open-air half circle, a design taken from Greek tradition;
the odeum, a smaller covered theater; and the amphitheater (lit. `double
theater'), here a large oval, used for the gladiatorial combats, the violent
spectacles enjoyed by the Romans. A barracks for gladiators was identified in a
portico behind the large theater, thanks to finds of helmets, armor, weapons,
and graffiti referring to teams of gladiators. Nearby, skeletons of at least 52
people, including children, were found, together with much jewelry; they were
gathered here intending to escape through the nearby city gate to the harbor,
but never made it.
The private houses, numerous and well preserved, range in
size and decoration from large and rich to modest. They typically have a
lararium, a shrine to the lares, the deities who protected house and family.
Traditional Italic houses feature the `atrium', a room with a square or
rectangular opening in the ceiling, letting in light, air, and rain. The rain
would fall into a basin below, then into a connected underground water tank.
Arranged around the atrium were smaller rooms. Since furniture was portable,
the functions of these rooms could easily vary. In winter, they could be closed
off, heated with portable braziers. At the rear, the important rooms were
located, the main reception room (tablinum), where the owner of the house and
his family formally greeted guests, and the dining room(triclinium). Houses of
the wealthy might also have a `peristyle' court, an open space surrounded by a
colonnaded portico. A feature borrowed from Greek architecture, the peristyle
in Roman Pompeii typically enclosed a garden. Explorations of the cavities left
by plant roots, by pouring plaster down them to recover their shapes, have
allowed researchers to reconstruct the kinds of plants cultivated, and to
replant some gardens in the ancient manner.
House decorations typically included walls plastered and
painted with a variety of images in a realistic style, and floor mosaics. A
spectacular example of the latter is the Alexander Mosaic, a large (5.1 x 2.7m2)
scene of Alexander the Great confronting the Persian king Darius III at the
Battle of Issos.