Searching for the temple garden in


Pompeii may be the world's best known archaeological site and Karen and I jumped at the opportunity to work there in 1998. Paraphrasing Dr. Frances Bernstein, one of the Principal Investigators, we know from literary references that temple gardens existed, but none from classical antiquity have ever been excavated and studied. The purpose of this Earthwatch sponsored project is to determine if the precincts of the Temples of Apollo and Venus at Pompeii were planted and to discover the patterns and types of vegetation for any garden found.

The Temple of Apollo, a post card view

Our excavations were at the Temple of Apollo. (I have included a few notes about the Temple of Venus excavations at the end of this article.) Apollo's temple is located just west of the Forum on the road to Porta Marina, the sea gate. The photo at left looks past the statue of Apollo toward the podium. The portico columns in the foreground support the only entablature blocks that have been replaced in their original positions. These blocks are important to the discoveries we made.

The temple was first excavated in 1817 when the science of archaeology was in its infancy (I want to thank Dr. Maureen Carroll, the other Principal Investigator, for many of the dates and other obscure facts I'm presenting here.) Pompeii was a treasure trove in those days and record keeping was lax or non-existent. A number of artists did record the Temple of Apollo, particularly the French architect François Mazois, who made some beautiful watercolors. From these drawings and from later photos we know that the entablature blocks were not replaced on the portico columns as late as 1867 but that by 1870 the temple looked much as it does today. One of the things I like about archaeology is how it can be a springboard to other kinds of historical research. Upon my return from Italy I found two wonderful old books about Pompeii in my public library. I found the older of the two, by Thomas Dyer, published around 1875 especially quaint in its language. The other, by August Mau, published in 1907 was packed with useful information. I purchased two volumes by William Clarke published in 1846, that showed how little of the buried city had been uncovered at that time. Like Dyer and the other very early authors, Clarke calls the Temple of Apollo, the Temple of Venus. After spending two weeks in city destroyed two thousand years ago it is fun to read a book printed 150 years ago.

Breaking turf in the first trench.

Our first trench was along the eastern side the podium. The photo at right shows us removing the turf in preparation for digging. (That's Karen in the pink top, center.) We hoped to find the root cavities of plants in undisturbed earth. Like the body casts of the inhabitants of Pompeii, these would have been created when buried plants decomposed and their roots were slowly replaced with lapilli (the pebbles of pumice that buried the city) that filtered down from above. Root casts have been made in the palaestra near the amphitheater and in the orchard of the rustic villa in nearby Boscoreale. Plants can be identified from these root casts and replanted to show how a Roman garden looked. Ours would be the first attempt to apply this archaeobotonical technique to a temple garden. Its success depended in large part on finding earth that was undisturbed since Pompeii's burial in the eruption of 79 CE.

The second trench in an early phase of excavation.

Unfortunately, we didn't really know how much undisturbed earth there was in the temple. Visiting the Pompeii library, Maureen and Frances discovered a record of excavations in the 1930s. Almost all of the area along side the podium had been excavated as had a strip in the courtyard next to the drain tiles. David Godden, the excavation site director, adjusted our trenches to avoid these disturbances. Still our finds were puzzling. As expected, near the surface we found numerous modern artifacts, some older than others, but none very old. There was much lapilli and many pottery sherds. As we went deeper, well below what should have been the courtyard level, we continued to find lapilli, pottery, and other clearly Roman artifacts, and nothing more modern. This seemed to indicate backfill of an excavation trench. At left David, in the tan hat, evaluates the second trench.

A piece of decorated plaster, fresh from the ground.

Then we began to uncover more and more architectural artifacts including large pieces of decorated plaster. In the photo at right David holds a piece just removed from the earth. I'm strictly an amateur archaeologist, but I like to try to apply my many weeks of field experience where I can. It struck me that not only were we finding this material in one part of the trench but that it seemed to be localized to a particular depth and was in nearly a straight line. If this were purely spoil that had been back-filled I would have expected a more random distribution. I tried to line up the material locations with the temple structure, noticing that the line paralleled the podium wall. I thought we might be looking at a buried wall, perhaps of an earlier structure.

Maureen and Frances paid another visit to the library and noticed that Mazois' watercolors of the temple showed details that matched the decorated material we were finding, but these details were in the entablature that surrounded the courtyard. Discussing this with David I looked up at the one section of entablature that stands today and, rotating it over in my mind, jokingly suggested that it had fallen into the courtyard. I was surprised and pleased the next day when David, after taking some measurements, theorized that that might be exactly what happened, perhaps in the earthquake of 62 CE. He proposed that a large part of the portico had fallen and the entablature had been buried in the courtyard when it stuck the ground with great force. Sometime later, perhaps during the excavations in the 18th or 19th centuries, the large blocks had been dug out of the earth. Several now stand on columns in their original positions and others are arrayed around the temple. We sat on some of these during lunch each day. When the large stones were pulled from the earth much of the decoration came loose and stayed in the earth, where it remained until we found it. 
(Click this link for more on the frieze.)

Overhead photography

The photo at right shows David using his very clever invention for taking overhead photographs of the second trench. Karen in the dark outfit and another volunteer out of view at left are helping him locate the camera, which is out of the photo at the top, over the center of the trench. He has marked some root cavity candidates in the trench bottom. Careful excavation of them, however, led to no conclusive results.

Considering the goal of the project, our excavations at the Temple of Apollo were disappointing. Since we found no evidence of flag stones we can presume that reconstructions that show a paved courtyard are not accurate but we cannot say that there was or wasn't a temple garden. Taking a broader view we can be pleased with our serendipitous discovery of the entablature frieze. Here is what Maureen says about it:

"The painted stucco frieze we found was indeed seen by the French architect Mazois (probably in 1819) and published by him in water color drawings in 1838. The frieze has not survived, and I have found references from 1925 and 1976 to this frieze saying that nothing of it remained. It could seem that WE are the first people to uncover more of it and preserve it since 1817!"


Excavations at the nearby Temple of Venus undertaken in the second two weeks of this year's season were more successful. That temple was not discovered until 1898 and the excavation records are better than at Apollo. Again let me quote Maureen:

"This turned out to be a very different type of site to excavate than the Temple of Apollo. It was ... surprisingly much less disturbed by earlier excavations, at least in the courtyard. We found definite evidence of planting here, although the courtyard was paved with a layer of fine mortar. To the east of the temple we found a rectangular, deep pit cut into the mortar paving which we think was a planting pit. To the northwest of the temple just inside the stone water channel we found a broken (mendable) planting pot with holes in the base and sides, of the type used to start off young shrubs or trees in pits in the soil. These are quite rare, so we were very excited to find one.

"Our trenches were limited in size, so we cannot recognize any planting pattern overall. If the trenches are enlarged and more trenches are laid out next year, I feel confident we will get a better picture of the temple garden."

She goes on to say that the garden predates the earthquake, which destroyed the temple. It had not been rebuilt at the time of the eruption that buried the city.

Click to visit Earthwatch Pompeii project (new window) This Pompeii project is complete, but read about an Earthwatch survey project in Pompeii here
(Opens a new window.)

You can do this!


In 2000 Maureen Carroll and David Gooden published a paper about this project, "The Sanctuary of Apollo at Pompeii: Reconsidering Chronologies and Excavation History".  It still may be available on-line at the AJA site
(Note that the paper is only part of a 10 MByte PDF  file of an entire issue.)

Price it at amazon

For further reading about Pompeii I recommend Pompeii, the Day a City Died by Robert Etienne, an inexpensive Discoveries series book. You can order it at by clicking the title link.

Click to look at this book at It is more expensive, but you might also be interested in this new Getty Museum reprint of the 1854 classic, Houses and Monuments of Pompeii, The Work of Fausto and Felice Niccolini.  Its 224 pages include explanatory commentary and the wondrous watercolors the Niccolinis created to document Pompeii.


Return to Archaeology

Return to The Vernian Era

Links updated 4 Feb 01. 
This page and its contents © Copyright 1998 Michael & Karen Crisafulli. 
All rights reserved.