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Conversations: Lover of Dirt Volume 59 Number 3, May/June 2006

Confessions of a garden archaeologist

Until recently, vanished gardens at archaeological sites were viewed as useless patches of earth from which little information could be harvested. Now, they are the object of intense scrutiny worldwide. One vocal practitioner is Kathryn Gleason, professor of landscape architecture at Cornell University and creator of a website ( aimed at supporting the Society for Garden Archaeology, a resource for this emerging community of scholars devoted to the investigation of gardens. Gleason talked to ARCHAEOLOGY about why gardens are the most complex type of "artifact."

So what is garden archaeology?
I consider it a subfield of landscape archaeology, which is a very broad discipline that looks at landscape change and issues of settlement over time.

How long have archaeologists been trying to recover evidence of ancient gardens and man-made landscapes?
Individual efforts have been going on since the nineteenth century, but, by and large, gardens were not thought to be knowable archaeologically and were not explored systematically until recently. Romanist Wilhelmina Jashemski has devoted the past three decades of her career to inspiring archaeologists to excavate garden areas. At 96, she is still working on her epic Gardens of the Roman Empire.

What sort of evidence do you look for when excavating an ancient garden?
I look for the design of the garden--the paths, garden beds, tree pits, fountains, statuary, niches, trellis supports.

No plants?
Many people are disappointed to learn that you can't excavate the plants of a garden. With luck, we can learn about some of the plants from preserved remains or literary sources; we can judge the size of plants from the planting holes and pots; and we can reconstruct some of the three-dimensional character of trellises, tree canopies (from the size of the pits), and, where land snails or insects are preserved, the overall degree of shade or sun the plantings provided.

What are some of the greatest surprises you've encountered?
Some of my greatest surprises are a bit specialized, like finding tree pits after I had begun to doubt that they could be detected at a site. You really have to love dirt, and not just the artifacts you find in it, to get that sort of rush. That said, the artifacts and environmental remains are always delightful--flowerpots with holes in the bottom just like today's, pig bones in a garden of Herod the Great, or curse tablets in the well of a courtyard.

What does knowing what someone planted in front of their house 2,000 years ago contribute toward our understanding of the bigger picture of the past?
Gardens in most times and cultures are the most complex type of "artifact" that we can study. They are both "things" and environments that have been carefully designed to establish the owner's--or in the case of public gardens, the patron's--position in political, religious, and social life. Gardens were important to an illiterate audience in telling a visual story, often on many levels, and so were closely connected to ideas of theater. And, of course, gardens tell us a variety of things about people's relationship to an idea about nature--from a king proving that he can control nature's forces (often with the help of a specific god) to an individual creating gardens to interact with the natural forces in terms of religious ritual and daily life--the "spirit of a place" as we still say today.

Are there particular plants that turn up over and over again, whether you're in Rome, Caesarea, or Jericho?
The plant that keeps appearing in the texts, and on sites as a possible garden plant in ceramic pots, is the ancient balsam, which is not known today. Jericho was the center of its production, and it may have been one of the aromatic plants, like frankincense and myrrh, that interested the Romans. The balsam was featured in their triumphal processions and the plant may have been prominent in the imperial gardens on the Palatine.

Are you a gardener yourself? If so, have any of your landscapes been inspired by a site you've excavated?
Yes, I have 2.5 acres that I either garden or dream of gardening. Unfortunately, here in western New York, my planting and experimentation is most immediately appreciated by the deer population. The Romans and the Anglo-Saxons dug nice banks and ditches to control deer, but I think my neighbors would be horrified if I came around the edge of my property with a backhoe.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America