Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Books: The Verdant Past Volume 57 Number 4, July/August 2004
by David Malakoff

[image] This wooden model of an Egyptian house and garden dates to ca. 1990 B.C. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1920 (20.3.13); Maureen Carroll) [LARGER IMAGE]

Paradise isn't lost. It's just waiting to be dug up, suggests archaeologist Maureen Carroll in Earthly Paradises (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2003; $35), a slim but substantial survey of the remarkable world of ancient gardening.

The very word "paradise" stems from pairidaeza, a name given to the lushly planted parks of the Persian kings. But while religious pilgrims have long sought such lost Edenic gardens, archaeologists joined the hunt in earnest just a few decades ago. At Pompeii, for instance, researchers traditionally ignored the "empty spaces" surrounding the structures they were excavating from the volcanic ash. It wasn't until the 1970s that "it became clear that these 'empty spaces' were not empty at all, they were in fact landscaped and designed to be an integral part of the structural complex," Carroll notes.

Studying these lost gardens isn't easy. Plant material doesn't survive as well as a foundation or a clay pot. But Carroll describes an impressive array of tools--from microscopic studies of buried pollen grains to careful analysis of historic documents--that have allowed archaeologists to reconstruct the details of abandoned plots.

[image] A first-century B.C. planting pot from Pompeii had holes to allow root growth. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1920 (20.3.13); Maureen Carroll) [LARGER IMAGE]

About half of the richly illustrated text compares how the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans built and used different types of gardens, from ceremonial groves designed to commemorate the dead to house gardens. Earthly Paradises also describes the plants favored by ancient gardeners and highlights the poetry and religious texts that sing the praises of green patches. A chapter on gardeners includes a startling contract from third-century B.C. Egypt that required one hired greenthumb "to hand over his own excrement for inspection" so that his employer could "probe it with a stalk" and make sure he wasn't eating the garden's produce.

Such anecdotes help liven up the occasionally wilted prose. Overall, however, Carroll delivers on her promise to help readers "catch glimpses of the earthly paradises of antiquity."

David Malakoff is a reporter for Science and former editor of Community Greening Review.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America