Smith College exhibit shows what ancient ruins reveal about garden medicine


For the Gazette

Published: 04-08-2017 7:43 PM

In 1966, an American archaeologist named Wilhelmina Feemster Jashemski was working on a dig at Pompeii, the ancient Roman city buried under ash and pumice during the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. She noticed something unusual going on among the Italian laborers at the site. As they dug the bright green weeds that needed to be removed before excavation, they packed them up in bundles. At the end of the day, they took these bundles home with them.

A curious woman by nature, Jashemski asked one of the workmen why they were collecting the weeds. He explained to her that the weed was mullein (Verbascum sinuatum L.), a remedy for liver problems, a common ailment among the local population. The exchange got her wondering what kinds of plants grew in ancient Pompeii and whether they, too, were used for medicinal purposes.

She began to explore the subject, analyzing ancient plant remains and consulting a range of modern and ancient texts relating to herbal remedies.

Her research resulted in a fascinating book, “A Pompeian Herbal: Ancient and Modern Medicinal Plants” (1999), an annotated catalog of medicinal plants that includes detailed, hand-drawn illustrations by two botanical artists, Lillian Nicholson Meyer and Victoria I (pronounced “ee”).

These illustrations, complete with explanatory notes and photographs, are the subject of a wonderful exhibition, “Plants of Pompeii: Ancient and Modern Medicinal Plants,” now on display in the Church Exhibition Gallery at Smith College’s Lyman Conservatory, part of its Botanic Garden. The exhibition is a must-see for anyone interested in the ancient and present-day use of medicinal herbs, including such common remedies as St. John’s Wort for depression and chamomile as a sleep aid.

Remedies everywhere

As the exhibition’s text explains, Jashemski uncovered a trove of historical and literary documentation in researching “A Pompeian Herbal.” One of her primary sources was Pliny the Elder’s tome “Natural History” (written circa 60 CE). She quoted a passage from that book:

Not even the woods and the wilder face of Nature are without medicines, for there is no place where the holy Mother of all things did not distribute remedies for the healing of mankind, so that even the very desert was made a drugstore…. Hence sprang the art of medicine.

Among Pliny’s many fascinating potions is what Jashemski described an herbal blend to counteract the poison of venomous animals. The ingredients specified by Pliny included, among other things, wild thyme, parsley, and fennel seed mixed with “the best wine obtainable” and compressed into lozenges. Illustrations of these plants are part of the exhibition.

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Plantain (Plantago lagopus), also featured in the exhibition, was another common ancient remedy for a host of ailments. Jashemski tracked down prescriptions written by Scribonius Largus, the Emperor Claudius’s private physician (circa 1CE – circa 50 CE) and the second-century Greek physician Soranus of Ephesus, that used the broad, elliptical leaves to treat eye problems, bleeding, skin ulcers and infant diarrhea.

Jashemski also delved into Greek and Roman mythology, finding instances where gods and goddesses plied herbal remedies to mortals and immortals alike. In Virgil’s Aeneid, for example, Venus brings the plant dittany (Origanum dictamnus), a common plant in Crete, to heal Aeneas’s wounds. A fresco from a Pompeian villa illustrates this same episode from the ancient Roman poet’s text.

In addition to textual evidence, Jashemski analyzed ancient plant remains. Fortunately, the heat of the eruption carbonized some of the plants, creating hollow casts of their root cavities. From this evidence, she ascertained, for example, that vine-covered walls had existed in certain places. She also found traces of ancient pollen in the soil, which allowed her to speculate on the pre-Vesuvius presence of specific plants. She obtained additional information from ancient frescoes, although she noted that she did not rely completely on these, as they were artistic rather than scientific renderings.

A gardening archaeologist

Jashemski was born in 1910 and grew up in the small college town of York, Nebraska. She attended York College, majoring in Latin and mathematics, and in 1945 she earned a doctorate in ancient history from the University of Chicago.

According to her 2008 obituary in the Washington Post, Jashemski’s interest in Pompeii began on a one-day visit in 1955 with her husband, Stanley, a physicist based in Maryland. She became immediately enthralled by the ancient site. She was an avid gardener and although her academic field was ancient Roman law, her husband suggested that she investigate the gardens at Pompeii.

In a 1977 interview with the Post, she claimed to have had just one reservation about his proposal: “It sounded entirely too much like fun to be a serious project.”

Over the next decade, Jashemski pioneered the academic discipline of garden archaeology, enlisting leading botanists, including Frederick Meyer, director of the herbarium of the National Arboretum in Washington, DC, to help in her extensive work at Pompeii. Meyer’s wife, Lillian Nicholson Meyer, a botanical artist, began the work of creating illustrations for “Pompeian Herbal.” Unfortunately, she died before completing the project and Jashemski hired artist Victoria I to portray the remaining plants.

“I was impressed by the continuity of life in the shadow of Vesuvius,” she wrote in “Pompeian Herbal.” “When I ask workmen why they do this or that, they invariably reply: ‘Because we have always done it that way!” She told the Post interviewer: “Life is still much the same. Did you know I have never found a garden in Pompeii that did not have a dog?”

Madelaine Zadik, Manager of Education and Outreach at Smith’s Botanic Garden, said she was inspired to create the exhibition by work she had done several years earlier with Smith art history professor Barbara Kellum relating to the plants of ancient Pompeii. When she learned that the Smith College Art Museum was planning to host a traveling exhibition titled “Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis,” featuring objects from a town near Pompeii also buried in the Vesuvius eruption, she decided to contact Kellum and Victoria I, the artist who had contributed illustrations for “A Pompeian Herbal,” to consult on the project. Smith biology student Audrey Gibson also assisted Zadik with preparing the exhibition.

The particulars

“Plants of Pompeii: Ancient and Modern Medicinal Plants” will be on display in the Church Exhibition Gallery in The Lyman Conservatory, 16 College Lane, Northampton until Dec. 15.

It is open every day from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The suggested donation is $2.